FBI Director Robert Mueller, battered all week by embarrassing revelations and calls for his resignation, took the stand in his own defense on the Sunday talk shows.
Mueller appeared on Meet the Press and Face the Nation, his first ever interviews on major news programs. Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared on Fox News Sunday and This Week to vouch for Mueller — not to mention defend himself against fresh charges that he was "trampling on the constitution" by changing FBI procedures.
Tim Russert had the longest interview with Mueller on Meet the Press. He made extensive use of FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley’s damaging memo directed at the bureau. Mueller was extremely cautious in his responses, maintaining that he has "changed the way we do business" at the FBI, but reminding everyone that "I started Sept. 4."
He declined to comment on many criticisms, deferring to on-going investigations by the FBI’s Inspector General.
Although Mueller was not an impressive guest, most pundits appeared to give him a grudging benefit of the doubt. None seconded the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s call for his resignation. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, on The News Hour, actually saw the focus on Mueller as strengthening his hand:
"He's the first administration figure to break ranks, to say that perhaps Sept. 11 could have been avoided. And by so doing, in a way, he has made his own job more secure because he shifted focus and attention from the White House and the president and criticism thereof to himself. Even his harshest critic cannot hold him accountable for what happened four days after he took over."
The Washington Post’s Ceci Connally seconded Shields’ view of Mueller. Appearing on Fox, she said, "Indications are that he still has great support in the White House."
"I hope it’s true that Mueller is in a reform mode," said NPR’s Juan Williams, also on Fox. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Bob Novak, on Capital Gang, wasn’t convinced: "I think reform is required, and I still am very skeptical that they're serious about reform. My information is, they're still not sharing information with police chiefs, they're still cracking down on new whistle-blowers that come out."
A Newsweek story charging that the CIA knew two of the Sept. 11 terrorists were in the United States was breaking as the Sunday shows began. Will CIA Director George Tenet be doing a Mueller next Sunday?
The tense situation between India and Pakistan was a distant "Issue Two" for the pundits. Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, appearing on Capital Gang, was the most alarmed: "I think this is the most perilous situation since the Cuban missile crisis of 40 years ago."
Juan Williams distilled the problem well: "I think the State Department is absolutely stumped by this, by the fact that General Musarraf feels so emotional and angry toward India and that the Indians are locked into their anger at the Pakistanis."
Exchange of the Week
During This Week’s roundtable, syndicated columnist Deborah Mathis and the Washington Post’s George Will had sharply different views on President Bush’s speech at the U.S. Military Academy threatening Iraq:
Mathis: "This has never been an aggressor nation and I don’t want to see it become one."
Will: "We are not an aggressor nation, but neither are we stupid or suicidal."
Two Views on Indian Democracy
"We have to come down on the side of India. India is a democracy." —Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, on Fox
"People in Kashmir don't want to live under Indian rule. Everybody tells you what a great democracy India is, but they don't want to have a vote for these people, because they'd say, ‘Get the hell out of here.’" —Bob Novak on Capital Gang
He Could Have Been a Contender
David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, appearing on The News Hour, rendered this verdict on Robert Mueller:
"I think he blew his chance to be a hero. I mean, in the days after Sept. 11, there were some people who stepped out of the normal parameters of action and controlled events. He was controlled by them; he was controlled by his bureaucracy. He failed at that crucial moment of his career."
Things Are Different Now
"Probable cause before Sept. 11 and after Sept. 11 has changed." —George Will on This Week, defending new FBI guidelines.
Chris Young wrote:
We should not be spending tax dollars to pay for a commission to investigate what the government knew prior to 9-11. If "they" do go ahead with an investigation, I hope they go back for the last 15 years as OBL plotted terrorist attacks! CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have all failed to report that Donald Rumsfeld was giving a talk at the Pentagon on the real threat of terrorist attacks on 9-11, while those planes were in flight. Why isn't there reporting on what the Clinton and Bush administration have done about terrorism?
Catherine Ellis wrote:
Since when is it the role of the legislative branch to set policy on national security? That's part of what we expect the executive branch to do. And how is it possible for the intelligence committee to have the same information that the president received in a briefing he requested...especially when we don't know exactly what the president's briefing did say?
Greg Martin of Anchorage, Alaska wrote:
In all I've heard about the possible negative results of arming pilots, and some airlines decision to furnish "stun guns" in their place, I haven't seen anything yet about the possibility of damage to aircraft systems from the use of the less-lethal "stun gun." Can you imagine the results of a misplaced shot with a Taser style "stun gun" if the projectiles delivered their high voltage charge to the aircraft's instrument panel? Massive communications and electronics system failure would leave the aircraft uncontrollable.
For my money, a misplaced shot with a handgun bullet, while certainly detrimental to the aircraft's control systems wouldn't have the catastrophic effect of a total system burnout caused by the "stun gun."
Lewis Amselem wrote:
This quote comes from your May 26 posting:
"Also far from the radar screen were tensions between India and Pakistan. On Late Edition, Powell again expressed disappointment at a second Pakistani nuclear test."
I assume you meant "second Pakistani missile test."
Yes, that’s what I meant. Good catch, Lewis. Thanks.
Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va. Unable to obsess on golf, fishing or a weed-free lawn, he chose to stalk the weekend talk show pundits and their syndicated print brethren. His "Punditwatch" column appears in Tony Adragna's Quasipundit.