WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder praised outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller Thursday as someone who "set the standard" for law enforcement during the last 12 years.
"He has led nothing less than a large-scale, historic transformation of the bureau," Holder said at a farewell ceremony at the Justice Department. The attorney general said that Mueller redefined the FBI as an intelligence-driven agency.
Mueller, who steps down next month, has run the FBI since a week before the Sept. 11, 2011 terror attacks. Holder credited him with thwarting some of the most serious terrorist plots the U.S. has faced since then.
Holder presented Mueller with the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service — the highest award the attorney general can bestow within the Justice Department.
"Because of sequestration, he gets to hold onto it, but then I take it back," Holder quipped.
The attorney general was one of several speakers at Thursday's event, which also featured the United States Marine Brass Quintet and the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard.
Although the focus was on Mueller's tenure as FBI director, several speakers commented on his decision in 1995 to leave a more high-paying job in private practice to work as a homicide prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. Holder, who headed up the office at the time, recalled Mueller calling to ask for the job.
"I reminded him that he already had a great job; that there was no way I'd be able to match his current salary; and that having already served as assistant attorney general for the criminal division, he might be a little overqualified for a job as a line prosecutor," Holder said. But before Mueller could change his mind, Holder asked Mueller when he could start.
"This was at a time when our nation's capital was a city in great distress — we were called the murder capital of the United States," Holder added. "Bob's work literally helped to save lives and also made better the lives of people who were too often unseen or who were forgotten."
Former CIA director George Tenet, who worked with Mueller during Mueller's first few years as head of the FBI, said they developed a "special relationship" after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It was easy because you could trust Bob Mueller with your life," Tenet said.
He also joked about testifying alongside Mueller at congressional hearings. Tenet said he'd cup his mouth and whisper something like, "Bob, isn't that the dumbest question you've ever heard?" And Muller would reply, "Shut up."
Mueller spoke briefly at the event, thanking the speakers for "all that hyperbole."
"While it is difficult to leave this family," he said, "I leave knowing that the work will continue under the leadership of individuals in the Department of Justice and in the FBI alike who embody the FBI's motto of 'Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity,' in the truest, and best sense, of those words."
On Monday, the Senate confirmed James Comey to succeed Mueller.
Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer