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U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller III was back in San Francisco Monday from Washington, D.C., with a message for the troops: I shall return. Without elaborating on just how long he plans on staying, Mueller — widely mentioned as a candidate to replace outgoing FBI director Louis Freeh — told his office he is coming back “for the duration,” according to sources within the office. Just last week, Mueller was pegged on the front page of The Wall Street Journal as the leading candidate to replace Freeh. At around the same time, though, the Timothy McVeigh document snafu crossed Mueller’s desk, a factor that may have hastened his return home. Since January, he has been serving as the Department of Justice’s acting deputy attorney general. A spokesman in the U.S. Attorney’s San Francisco office said Mueller will return next Monday. It is a surprising move because Mueller, from all accounts guided by an abiding sense of duty, is leaving Main Justice without someone to oversee the day-to-day operations of the department. The nomination of Deputy Attorney General-designate Larry Thompson has been held up by congressional infighting. “He wouldn’t be coming out unless someone said there’s no point in staying around, frankly,” said Hastings College of the Law Professor Rory Little, who served as an assistant deputy attorney general under Janet Reno. If Mueller is no longer a candidate to run the FBI, said Federal Public Defender Barry Portman, “that’s too bad. But it’s good for our district.” Mueller left for Washington, D.C., in January for what was expected to be a brief stay. It was gradually extended as political disputes delayed action on DOJ nominees. If Mueller’s fortunes have changed since last week, it may have to do with his handling of recent developments in the case of Timothy McVeigh, who admitted to killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. The Department of Justice announced late last week that several boxes of documents had not been turned over to McVeigh’s defense attorneys. Almost immediately, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced McVeigh’s execution, which had been scheduled for today, would be delayed one month. According to Newsweek, Mueller knew about the missing evidence before Ashcroft, but waited a day before telling him. He later reportedly apologized to Ashcroft for doing so. McVeigh’s lawyers also reportedly knew about the documents two days before either Ashcroft or President Bush. Mueller could not be reached for comment. A second batch of documents was found over the weekend. The revelations of the unreleased documents have already had repercussions. The DOJ has launched an internal investigation into the matter, while the FBI announced a nationwide search for more documents. A lawyer for McVeigh co-conspirator Terry Nichols has appealed his client’s conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. And those wanting to see McVeigh die are still waiting. Conventional wisdom was that the release of the documents, the latest in a string of embarrassments for the FBI, would tend to help Mueller if he chose to seek the directorship. Mueller has said in the past that he will not tolerate withholding evidence from defense lawyers, and the release seems to support that position. However, the Newsweek article says Mueller was unaware that the Justice Department had an agreement with McVeigh’s lawyers to turn over all evidence in the case, not just evidence tending to exonerate the defendant, as is normal. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, apparently the first official Mueller notified about the documents, is quoted as saying he was “left with a clear impression that [Mueller] didn’t believe this would be a problem.” On Tuesday, according to one senator, Freeh told the Senate Intelligence Committee the newfound documents “won’t have any bearing on the case.” However, several senators signaled that the FBI is about to come under intense scrutiny by Congress. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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