President Barack Obama on Friday will name former Justice Department official James B. Comey Jr. as his choice to head the FBI, according to an informed White House official.
Popular among both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, the 52-year-old Comey appears to face a straightforward path to confirmation for the 10-year term. At the same time, his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is likely to become a stage for lawmakers seeking more details and reassurances on the bureau’s role in domestic surveillance.
“Jim knows what it takes to investigate and enforce the laws of the United States, protect our citizens, and has always done so with the utmost integrity,” the White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision wasn’t yet formally announced. “In moments of debate and decision, he asks the tough questions and insists on rigorous standards.”
Comey also knows how to deal with surprises, like the time he prosecuted an aspiring terrorist who used rope partially braided from unwaxed dental floss to escape from a seventh-floor New York City jail cell.
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The Iranian-born suspect, Kourosh Bakhtiari, was caught and later convicted on weapons and escape charges. He has since served his time and been released back into anonymity. Comey, meanwhile, moved onward from that early 1989 case to where he is now, the cusp of taking over the nation’s most prominent law enforcement agency.
A hedge fund manager at Bridgewater Associates until February, and currently a national security law fellow at Columbia Law School, Comey is expected to appear with Obama at the White House on Friday afternoon. It won’t be a surprise. Officials, speaking anonymously, had widely leaked his name last month as the pending nominee.
“It’s precisely because of his views on things like surveillance that I think he’s come to the president’s attention,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Republicans applaud Comey’s record going after corrupt politicians, international terrorists and old-school mobsters. Already, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., called Comey on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a “safe, logical choice” who has a “good reputation for his prosecutorial work.”
Though Comey was never a special agent, he’s worked with them as the front-line prosecutor against defendants ranging from a West African heroin smuggler to a man who tried selling helicopters to Iran. One complex racketeering case, against the Gambino organized crime family, kept Comey in court for the first six months of 1993.
“I’ve been lucky enough to actually do the cases and work with the men and women, the cops, the state troopers, the special agents, to make criminal cases of all sorts,” Comey said during his 2003 Senate confirmation hearing to serve as deputy attorney general. “So I know what it’s like where the rubber meets the road.”
Democrats, who control the Senate, appreciate the independence Comey showed during his service in the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department. In particular, lawmakers and civil libertarians say the six-foot, eight-inch tall Comey held firm against a Bush White House attempt to make an end run around objections to extending a warrantless wiretap program.
As Comey later described it, he and FBI Director Robert Mueller raced to George Washington University Hospital the night of March 4, 2004, in order to prevent White House officials from securing the signature of the incapacitated attorney general, John Ashcroft.
“I was very upset. I was angry,” Comey subsequently told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
At the same time, Comey’s service in the Bush administration’s Justice Department will prompt at least a few questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members and civil libertarians.
“As the second-highest ranked Justice Department official under John Ashcroft, Comey approved some of the worst abuses committed by the Bush administration,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Specifically, the publicly available evidence indicates Comey signed off on enhanced interrogation techniques that constitute torture, including waterboarding.”
Once confirmed to replace Mueller, who has served since taking office a week prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Comey’s biggest challenge will begin.
The graduate of the College of William and Mary and the University of Chicago Law School will be leading an agency whose $8.1 billion budget faces new constraints. The bureau’s 34,000 employees, of whom about 13,000 are special agents, confront cases that are intricate both technically and politically.
Even as leaks were pouring out about Comey’s impending nomination in late May, the FBI became entangled in several high-profile media leak investigations.
One case involves a 2012 Associated Press story about al Qaida, which prompted leak investigators to obtain two months worth of AP reporters’ telephone records. The other case involves a Fox News reporter’s account of North Korean nuclear weapons activities, which prompted an FBI special agent to obtain a search warrant application for the reporter’s Google email account.
More recently, the FBI has been drawn into the debate over the Obama administration’s surveillance practices. It is the FBI, for instance, that issued 16,511 secret National Security Letters in 2011 demanding an assortment of telephone, credit or Internet records under a law that prohibits individuals from talking about the FBI’s investigation. The Obama administration is now appealing a federal judge’s decision that the wholesale gag order violates the First Amendment.
“When no such national security concerns exist, thousands of recipients of (National Security Letters) are nonetheless prohibited from speaking out about the mere fact of their receipt of an NSL,” U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of San Francisco wrote in March.
Comey is married and the father of five children.
“Loyalty’s a terrific thing,” Comey told senators at his last confirmation hearing, “but integrity and the love of my family is all I have left at the end of this life, and so that is paramount in my mind.”