WASHINGTON — President Obama will ask Congress to allow FBI Director Robert Mueller to remain in his job an extra two years, a rare exemption meant to lend stability in a time of change atop the national security team and renewed worldwide focus on terrorism.
Obama urged lawmakers to go along with his idea "for the sake of our nation's safety and security." Several Democrats and Republicans in Congress chimed in with support.
The news comes as a surprise for an administration that had been seriously vetting candidates to replace Mueller, whose term is set to expire on Sept. 4 under a law that caps the service of FBI directors at 10 years.
Mueller was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and began just a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Well-regarded by Republicans and Democrats, Mueller is known for transforming a crime-fighting agency into the front line of defense against terrorism.
The plan to keep Mueller on isn't tied to the U.S. raid in Pakistan that led to the killing of al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden this month, or to any threat of retaliation against the United States as a result of that mission, administration officials said.
"Given the ongoing threats facing the United States, as well as the leadership transitions at other agencies like the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time," Obama said.
Obama will ask Congress for legislation tailored solely for a two-year extension for Mueller. White House officials say that although such an extension has never been granted for an FBI director, it has been done in other term-limited cases and therefore would not set a precedent.
The Republican House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, backed Obama's move.
"It is important to maintain continuity for our intelligence community during this transition period," Smith said.
In the Senate, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over the FBI, offered what amounted to a cautious but favorable response.
"This is an unusual step by the president and is somewhat of a risky precedent to set," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. He called the 10-year term limit on an FBI chief's service, set in 1976, "an important safeguard against improper political influence and abuses of the past."
"There's no question that director Mueller has proven his ability to run the FBI," Grassley added. "And, we live in extraordinary times. So, I'm open to the president's idea, but will need to know more about his plan to ensure that this is not a more permanent extension that would undermine the purposes of the term limit."
The term limit was set in response to the service of J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972, ending a decades-long tenure as FBI director that was marred by abuses of power.
Administration officials said they have been consulting with lawmakers and are confident that an exception will be made to keep Mueller in his job.
Obama asked Mueller, 66, to stay and the FBI director said he would do so for two more years, the officials said.
Another potential factor in the mix: Any replacement for Mueller would have to be confirmed by an expanded Republican minority in the Senate, one with the votes to potentially complicate the prospects of an Obama nominee.
Under the scenario the White House has drawn, Mueller would serve until the start of September 2013, and then the president elected in 2012 would choose his successor for a decade.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, endorsed Obama's decision and said he was "delighted" to hear Mueller was asked to stay.
The selection process for Mueller's replacement had begun at the start of this year. Obama's primary goal has been to find a nominee who is viewed as a heavy hitter on the terrorism issues the FBI faces.
Obama last month announced plans for a major reshuffling of his national security team, sending CIA Director Leon Panetta to the Pentagon to replace Robert Gates, a Bush administration holdover who has won high praise from Obama. Panetta is to be replaced at the spy agency with Gen. David Petraeus, the high-profile commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. John Allen will move from his post as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command in Florida to succeed Petraeus in Afghanistan, and veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker will become the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. The moves await Senate confirmation.
Mueller's tenure began at something of a low point for the FBI's reputation.
The carnage a decade ago at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exposed the FBI's vulnerabilities. The FBI missed a number of clues that might have averted the attacks.
Before 9/11, the FBI also came in for criticism on non-terrorism matters like the discovery that one of its own, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, had been spying for Moscow for two decades.
A former U.S. Marine, Mueller came to the FBI after a long career in law enforcement.