FBI supervisors angered over plan to extend Mueller term

Last week, when the White House floated the idea of giving FBI Director Robert Mueller a two-year extension rather than shuffle all of the top national-security positions at once, I wrote that the proposal would probably not generate a lot of opposition on Capitol Hill.  Granted, it would be another case of the Obama administration kicking a tough decision down the road, but Mueller’s tenure has generally garnered solid praise in his ten-year term.  Rather than face a potentially divisive confirmation hearing on a new nominee, a two-year extension would allow a potential Republican President to appoint the next director.

However, FBI supervisors working under Mueller get treated far differently — and are now loudly objecting to what they see as Obama administration hypocrisy:

President Obama’s plan to keep FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in office beyond his 10-year term has triggered an angry reaction among some agents, who say Muel­ler imposed term limits on hundreds of supervisors in the agency but is failing to abide by legal limits set on his own tenure. …

The FBI’s policy, which is unusual among law enforcement agencies, was adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Known as “up or out,’’ it requires FBI supervisors to leave their posts after seven years and compete for other managerial jobs, retire or accept a demotion in the same field office with lower pay.

FBI officials say the term limits have brought strong managers into hundreds of positions created in the years after Sept. 11. But the plan to retain Mueller has revived long-simmering tensions over the policy, which some say has robbed the bureau of veteran supervisors who retired because they did not get promoted. …

“People are up in arms about this,’’ said one agent, who likened the news to “a shot in the kneecaps.’’

“We have lost valuable experience,’’ the agent said. “I’ve seen people, some really significant contributors to this organization and to this country, who are questioning their self-worth now and who are basically bitter.’’

This does put a new light on the proposal.  If Mueller has been forcing supervisors to honor a form of a term limit by either taking less pay or retiring, then it makes little sense to extend to Mueller a courtesy that Mueller doesn’t himself extend.  The aim of the Obama proposal — to keep Mueller’s expertise in harness while making changes elsewhere — would almost certainly apply to areas within the FBI as well.  And while it’s good to get fresh blood into supervisory positions, one has to wonder why that wouldn’t also apply at the very top of the organization as well.

Furthermore, this calls into question whether the White House did any research on how an extension for Mueller would be received internally.  Did they even know about this policy?  If they did, it doesn’t appear that they bothered to take it into consideration, a particularly foolish choice in terms of morale support within an agency tasked with both law enforcement and national security.

Given this information, the White House should just do its job and find a replacement for Mueller rather than try to pass the buck.