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WASHINGTON (AP) – Robert Mueller, President Bush’s choice to head the FBI, told Congress Monday that the nation’s premier law enforcement agency will handle itself better under his leadership despite its recent string of high-profile blunders.

“If I have the honor of being confirmed by the Senate, I will make it my highest priority to restore the public’s confidence in the FBI – to re-earn the faith and trust of the American people,” he said. “The dedicated men and women of the FBI deserve nothing less, and as director I would tolerate nothing less.”

However, Mueller cautioned the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI “is far from perfect and that the next director faces significant management and administrative challenges.”

But when mistakes are made, he said, the bureau needs to admit it immediately and hold accountable those who are responsible.

Finally, “Every significant mistake must be examined to determine whether broader reform is necessary,” he said. “We must learn from our mistakes or we will be bound to repeat them.”

Mueller will have to deal with a Congress that plans to oversee the FBI a lot more closely than it did in the past, the chairman of the committee said.

“Congress has sometimes followed a hands-off approach about the FBI,” the Judiciary chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. “Until the bureau’s problems are solved, we will need a hands-on approach for a while.”

Leahy said he sees three core problems within the FBI: security and computers; management; and the FBI’s insular culture. Mueller will have to be willing to work with Congress to help fix all three problems, Leahy said.

“We need to forge a strong and constructive oversight partnership with the leadership at the Department of Justice and the FBI to shape the reforms and find the solutions to make the FBI the premier law enforcement agency that the American people want it to be,” Leahy said.

Mueller – nominated by Bush on July 5 – will have plenty of time to answer questions, because the committee announced that his confirmation hearing will last at least two days.

The committee already has held FBI oversight hearings, and was expected to use Mueller’s first appearance before Congress to ask for specific reforms within the FBI, and to set benchmarks for the agency to live up to.

This would be a markedly different confirmation hearing for Mueller than for his predecessor, Louis Freeh. When he came before the Judiciary Committee on July 29, 1993, it was a love fest, with Freeh giving the customary promises to fight crime on all fronts while retaining independence from political influence and increasing the number of minority and female agents.

He was done in three hours and confirmed less than two weeks later.

Barring major controversy during the hearing, Mueller’s confirmation also is all but assured by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also says he hopes to get a final vote on his nomination by the end of the week.

Mueller, 56, is a no-nonsense Justice Department veteran and former federal prosecutor who has served in senior posts under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Unlike Freeh, who retired two years short of his 10-year term, Mueller has never been an FBI agent.

But his Marine Corps background – he received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam – will enhance his image among agents, many of whom are former Marines, FBI officials said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the Judiciary Committee’s harshest FBI critics, told Mueller that he planned to delve into what he sees as a “cowboy culture” within the bureau.

“The FBI is in desperate need of a director who will make drastic changes in the bureau’s management culture,” Grassley said. “This person must be able to sweep out the culture of arrogance and replace it with a culture dedicated to truth and honorable service to the American people.”

Added Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee’s top Republican: “Your record of service to the community and the country is one that anyone would be proud of. There is no doubt that you will need to muster all of your experience, training and character to execute this new assignment.”

The FBI has been under fire for missteps going back years, including the failure to provide thousands of documents to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers, the Robert Hanssen spy case, the bloody Branch Davidian and Ruby Ridge standoffs, its inability to account for all its firearms and computers and the botched investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.


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