WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday proposed extending the 10-year term for FBI Director Robert Mueller by two years, a surprise move that provides some continuity as Obama reshuffles other members of his national security team.
Mueller’s term ends on September 4 and would have been another change within Obama’s inner circle. Obama nominated his CIA Director Leon Panetta to become defense secretary and his Afghan war commander David Petraeus to head the CIA.
“I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time,” Obama said in a statement requesting Congress extend Mueller’s term. “Bob transformed the FBI after September 11, 2001 into a preeminent counterterrorism agency.”
The move caught officials in Washington off guard. Many were expecting Obama to choose a replacement for Mueller in the coming weeks and said they learned about the two-year extension only shortly before the White House’s announcement.
“What can you do when the president asks you?” one official said, citing the 66-year-old Mueller’s long government service, including as a Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War.
The administration for months has been trying to find a successor to Mueller, who joined the FBI just days before the September 11 attacks and has been at the heart of the effort to overhaul its mission to focus on terrorism threats.
The request for him to stay on would require a change in the U.S. law that limits the FBI director’s term to 10 years. That limit was passed by Congress after J. Edgar Hoover spent 48 years in charge of the agency, serving until his death in 1972.
The extension would avoid a potential political battle for Obama, who has been repeatedly attacked by Republicans for many of his national security policies.
“This arrangement, if passed by Congress, would avoid a confirmation fight over a successor, and keep someone in office who has caused no problems for the administration, unlike some of his predecessors,” said Arthur Hulnick, a professor at Boston University and a former CIA intelligence officer.
Obama’s proposal largely won support from Democrats who control the Senate and Republicans who run the House of Representatives, though one lawmaker said he wanted to ensure it would be a one-time deal.
“I‘m open to the president’s idea, but I will need to know more about his plan to ensure that this is not a more permanent extension that would undermine the purposes of the term limit,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Possible FBI candidates included former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey; Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago; Kenneth Wainstein, a former White House homeland security adviser; John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration; and Michael Mason, a former top FBI official.
After the September 11 attacks, Mueller fought off proposals to split the FBI into separate intelligence and criminal investigative agencies. He spent years working to upgrade and integrate its capabilities with the intelligence community.
The FBI and the CIA had faced fierce criticism for failing to detect and prevent the attacks. Mueller has also received criticism for testing the boundaries of civil liberties, and for a new FBI computer system that ran over budget.
Since Obama took office, the FBI has been confronted with numerous terrorism plots including one to bomb the New York City subway system and a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in the city’s crowded Times Square area.
Mueller has also been under pressure to step up investigations into more traditional crimes including mortgage fraud and to address the emerging threat of cyber attacks on the government, private companies and individuals.
But combating terrorism has been atop Mueller’s agenda ever since the September 11 attacks and his biggest concern tied to that of late has been the threat of lone individuals taking up the cause of al Qaeda or other militants and launching attacks.
Last month U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Mueller was “a hard person to replace.” He said on Thursday: “There is no better person for that job than Bob Mueller.”
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Xavier Briand