With the reported pick of James Comey to be the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, President Obama appears to have hit a political sweet spot.
Mr. Comey is a Republican and aggressive prosecutor who served in senior Justice Department positions in the administration of George W. Bush. He donated to John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.
But he also has been praised for resisting the use of warrantless wiretaps by the Bush administration – threatening to resign at one point – and for warning against the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that critics said amounted to torture.
If formally nominated, as expected within the next few days, Comey would replace current FBI Director Robert Mueller, who assumed the job just a week before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and is required by law to retire in September.
The FBI turnover comes at a time when the agency is deeply involved in finding and prosecuting domestic terrorists. But that work is not without recent problems. The FBI has been criticized for failing to follow up on intelligence information that might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings.
Also, it was reported Wednesday that ethnic Chechen Ibragim Todashev was unarmed when he was shot and killed while being questioned by an FBI agent and Massachusetts state troopers about those bombings and an earlier triple murder. It had initially been reported that Mr. Todashev lunged at the agent with a knife.
The FBI also is under fire for seizing journalists’ phone records as part of an effort to stop government leaks.
In what may have been the most dramatic moment in Comey’s career, he confronted White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft over certification of a warrantless wiretapping program.
"I was angry," Comey later told a Senate committee. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."
Civil libertarians aren’t so sure Comey was the hero some have made him out to be on warrantless wiretaps and the interrogation of terrorist suspects.
"James Comey's nomination should raise serious concerns, and his role in the Bush administration needs to be examined," Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Washington Post. "We need to know the full story of his role in the torture memos. It does not sound like a great nomination. Recycling Bush people is not a good guarantee for the protection of civil liberties."
There’s also the issue of Comey’s work after he left government service. Until recently, he worked as a hedge fund manager, and he now lectures at Columbia Law School in New York. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Comey's confirmation hearing could raise questions about the Obama administration's investigations of Wall Street.
“If he's nominated, he would have to answer questions about his recent work in the hedge fund industry," Senator Grassley said in a statement. "The administration's efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and [Comey’s] agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues."
Comey graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and from the University of Chicago Law School. He worked as a law clerk for a federal judge and then in a New York law firm before joining the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Among the investigations he led was that of author and TV personality Martha Stewart, convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding, and making false statements to federal investigators in a stock-trading case.
In the Bush administration, Comey was deputy attorney general.
Comey and his wife, Patrice, have five children. At 6-foot-8, Comey is almost certainly guaranteed a spot on the president’s pickup basketball team.
Comey’s expected nomination comes at a time when Obama is sagging in some polls and when his attorney general – Eric Holder – has been under political fire over several issues, including the botched “Fast and Furious” federal gun sting, the seizure of journalists' phone records, and what critics say is his failure to prosecute large financial institutions.