The former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Robert Mueller, visited Stanford this Tuesday and talked with students about his tenure as a leader in national security and his views on today’s security issues. The event was hosted by Stanford in Government (SIG) and drew an overflowing audience of students to eat lunch with and ask questions of Mueller.
Mueller, who was appointed by President George W. Bush just one week before Sept. 11, 2001, began the talk with the terrorist attacks at the beginning of his career.
Mueller recalled being notified that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York and then looking out the window at a sunny sky in Washington, D.C.
“We couldn’t understand how a plane could have gotten so off track on such a beautiful day,” Mueller said.
After the next plane hit the Towers and another plane hit the Pentagon, Mueller explained that he realized that it had to be a terrorist attack, and that as a voice came over the intercom to tell him another plane was 50 miles away and headed straight to Washington, he was in shock.
“It was surreal to sit there and know there was going to be another attack but not know where,” he said.
This plane, Flight 93, would be plowed into a field and never hit its unknown target.
In his first briefing with Bush after the attack, Mueller remembered Bush stopping him mid-sentence on the debriefing of the crashes.
“[He said,] ‘My question to you is what the FBI is doing to prevent a terrorist attack,’” Mueller said.
“I felt like an eighteen-year-old who did the wrong assignment,” he added.
In response, Mueller moved 2,000 FBI agents to counterterrorism efforts focusing on everything from cyber terror to civil rights within the new realm of terrorism.
“One terrorist gets through? You failed,” he said.
Mueller went on to talk about his views on other security issues as well. Cyber terrorism is something the FBI is focusing heavily on post-Sept. 11, and Mueller sees the chaos in Syria and the power of ISIS as an opportunity for cyber warfare to grow.
“With that many people in the region, there are likely to be a number of cyber geeks and individuals who have the knowledge to conduct cyber terrorism,” Mueller said.
Mueller’s suggested solution to this new front of terrorism is to create partnerships between governmental agencies and the private sector.
When one audience member asked how the FBI planned to attract high-level computer scientists and draw them away from a high-paying private sector, Mueller did not seem to think this was a problem.
“Working for the FBI is one heck of a lot of fun,” he said. “People love doing their job. You can’t do this kind of work in the private sector, even if you were to get paid a wee bit more.”
Mueller ended his talk by explaining the process of hiring FBI agents in case any audience members were interested. He emphasized agents’ need for “judgment and maturity.”
Mueller’s predecessor started a process in which each agent visits the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. before they start work. Mueller continued this tradition in order to remind agents of what happens when agents lack judgment and a law enforcement agency goes awry.
One audience member asked whether the FBI has considered changing requirements for clearance so that “mistakes you made in high school can’t keep you from being an agent.”
“Absolutely not,” Mueller said. “What you put on Facebook comes back to haunt you in the bureau.”
Audience member Julian Bava ’18 said that he enjoyed listening to Mueller’s talk and participating in the Q&A session.
“I appreciated Mr. Mueller’s thoughtful answers to the questions he was asked, but he certainly maintained the ‘aggressively apolitical’ demeanor that he said was required of an FBI director,” Bava said.
Contact Elizabeth Wallace at wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.