Robert Mueller has taken on enemy soldiers in Vietnam, terrorist suspects, the most wanted criminals in America and reporters asking him to justify every move.
But even with that experience, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had to stay on his toes with Washington-Lee students. “Excellent questions. As tough as I get,” Mueller said, after taking about 45 minutes of questions for a live television broadcast last week.
Mueller’s visit to Washington-Lee marked the last stop of the Students and Leaders Tour, a project sponsored by C-SPAN and Comcast cable, which brought representatives of federal and state agencies to 40 schools in 20 days. Earlier this month, as part of the same program, Gov. Mark Warner (D) addressed students at Swanson Middle School.
Many questions from Washington-Lee students focused on the FBI’s changing role after Sept. 11. “The top priority is counterterrorism,” Mueller said.
Students and teachers have been discussing terrorism and national security more since federal officials raised the national threat level to orange last week, so students were bound to have some questions for Mueller.
Students are interested in the topic, said Christine Boehm, a Washington-Lee senior, but the mood in school hasn’t changed recently. “What you heard here was more of an academic look at the issues … not a deep worry,” she said.
Sargon de Jesus, also a senior, said most students prefer not to think about the dangers. “In class we’ll talk about it,” he said. “In regular life I think it’s more of an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of attitude.”
SEVERAL STUDENTS were more concerned about law-enforcement agencies overstepping their bounds than they were about protection from terrorists.
“In the past,” said Mueller, “there have been times when the Bureau has crossed over the line.” But he defended current actions. “Much of what we do enhances our security without undercutting our freedoms.” To that end, Mueller said every agent is required to attend the Holocaust Museum to understand “what happens when you have a police organization that is unconstrained.”
The FBI’s role remains a “balancing act” between safety and individual freedom, Mueller admitted. De Jesus wasn’t satisfied with that response. “I think that he was very right in what he was saying,” said de Jesus. “But he didn’t cite any specific safeguards that the FBI enacts.”
De Jesus asked Mueller how the Bureau makes sure agents gathering intelligence don’t engage in racial profiling.
“The tragedy of it is that because the 19 hijackers [on Sept. 11] came from the Middle East, we do have to look at that as a factor,” said Mueller. “All Muslims in the United States are hurt by that fact.”
After the forum, de Jesus explained why so many students were concerned with protecting freedom in the post-Sept. 11 world. “I think the reasons for wanting to protect against terrorism are the same reasons for wanting to protect civil liberties,” he said. It’s about protecting America, and individual freedom is what makes America great, he said.
MUELLER URGED students to consider public service careers. “I think every generation has a contribution to make,” he said.
FBI agent Bryan Emmerson joined Mueller in letting students know about careers in law enforcement. Emmerson, a 1986 graduate of Washington-Lee, was completing a training exercise in Quantico when he heard about Mueller’s trip to his former school.
A former high-school teacher, Emmerson said students at the session were well-informed on current events.
“I was extremely impressed,” he said, and couldn’t resist comparing his high-school days with the students of today. “I’m sure we weren’t that smart,” he said.
Still, there were reminders of his time at Washington-Lee. As he looked around the hallways of his alma mater, Emmerson said, “It really is eerily the same.”
Video of the event is archived and available, at www.studentsandleaders.org.