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Senate near to naming FBI chief

Mueller vows to ensure a safe Olympics in S.L.

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WASHINGTON — Although senators roundly criticized his agency, Robert S. Mueller appears well on his way to being confirmed the next director of the FBI.

Mueller told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee he knows the FBI "has been tarnished by some serious and highly publicized problems," and he vowed Monday to "confront these challenges squarely and forthrightly."

He added, "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."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking Republican on the committee, said of the former federal prosecutor, law professor and Marine officer, "It is hard to imagine anyone whose unquestioned experience, good character and reputation would so perfectly match with the requirements of his new position."

But, echoing other members, Hatch said Mueller faces a huge challenge because of current FBI problems, including the Robert Hanssen spy case; failure to provide thousands of documents to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's attorneys; the loss of large numbers of firearms and laptop computers containing classified data; problems with the FBI lab; and the botched investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

"It is critical to the continued success and improvement of any organization to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes, and the FBI is no different," Mueller said.

"All institutions — even great ones like the FBI — make mistakes. The measure of an institution is in how it responds to its mistakes. I believe the FBI can, and must, do a better job of dealing with its mistakes."

But Mueller said he also believes the FBI is still the premier law-enforcement agency in the world, and said the nation should not forget successes, including "investigations into the downing of Pan Am 103, and bombings at the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City and African embassy."

Even so, senators criticized the FBI so directly and so often that Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Mueller "I hope you don't change your mind (about taking the job) no matter what is said here."

Leahy added, "I fully expect you to be confirmed," which several other Democrats and Republicans echoed. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he expects Mueller to be confirmed by week's end.

In questioning by Hatch, Mueller said he expects to continue using polygraph tests for supervisors who handle national security matters.

Of interest to Utahns, Mueller pledged to be personally involved in helping to ensure that security at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics is adequate.

"I expect to be personally involved in those preparations so that I can assure myself that the bureau is doing everything that it can do to contribute to the joint effort" by law enforcement agencies working on Olympic security, Mueller said.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com