Obama to nominate Bush-era Justice Dept. official to head FBI

WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to nominate James B. Comey, a former senior Justice Department official who famously challenged warrantless eavesdropping under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert S. Mueller III as director of the FBI, officials said Wednesday.

For the Obama White House, Comey's Republican credentials and record as a federal prosecutor made him an appealing candidate for the nation's top law enforcement job. By tradition, the FBI director is considered nonpartisan.

The White House will seek to win Senate confirmation for Comey, 52, before the August congressional recess, though it is uncertain exactly when he will be nominated, according to officials who were not authorized to speak publicly. Mueller, who has served as FBI chief since 2001, is set to retire in September.

It was unclear whether Comey's chances of confirmation will be affected by his dramatic history in the Bush administration. Comey threatened to resign as deputy attorney general rather than consent to secret surveillance of telephone calls by the National Security Agency. Bush had authorized the effort after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the Justice Department had determined the program was illegal.

If the program were to continue, the department needed to certify its legality. In March 2004, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft lay in the hospital, critically ill. Comey, the acting attorney general, refused to certify the program. As Comey would later tell the Senate Judiciary Committee, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. and White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales tried to go around him.

When Comey learned that Card and Gonzales were en route to the hospital, he rushed to Ashcroft's room, arriving before them. Card and Gonzales tried to persuade Ashcroft to authorize the program's extension. He refused and told them Comey was in charge.

Bush subsequently agreed to change the program to satisfy Comey's objections. The incident helped cement Comey's reputation as a principled lawyer who would not bend the law to please his superiors in the White House.

During Comey's two years as second-in-command at the Justice Department, he ran day-to-day operations and won credit for seeking to shield U.S. attorneys around the country from political pressure. But he made powerful enemies.

In December 2003, he took the lead role in appointing Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago and a close friend, as a special prosecutor to pursue the CIA leak investigation that ensnared I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Libby ultimately was convicted of four felony counts and sentenced to 30 months in prison, although Bush later commuted the sentence.

That investigation put a cloud over the Bush White House, and ended any possibility that Comey would be named attorney general when Ashcroft retired in early 2005. Gonzales got the job instead.

Comey left that August to become senior vice president and general counsel of Lockheed Martin Corp., the aerospace and defense giant. More recently, he worked in private practice and taught at Columbia Law School, although he occasionally emerged in the public eye.

In February, Comey signed onto a Supreme Court brief with more than 100 former Republican officials and lawmakers to support the right to gay marriage in California's Proposition 8 case.

And in June 2011, Comey had urged a Senate committee to extend Mueller's FBI tenure because America faced "an unusual and unique threat environment" after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden the month before in Pakistan, and with the looming 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't think there's ever a great time to change FBI directors, because something is always lost in a transition," Comey testified. "But I think there are bad and even potentially dangerous times to change an FBI director, and I think this is one of them."

FBI and Justice Department officials said Comey and Lisa Monaco, now the White House counter-terrorism advisor, were interviewed in April about the FBI director's job and were the two top candidates.

Comey was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and grew up in Allendale, N.J. He graduated from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and earned his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1985.

After a stint as a law clerk for a federal judge in Manhattan, Comey was hired as a federal prosecutor in 1987 by then-U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York, and later took a similar post in Richmond, Va.

He got President Bush's attention for his work on the 1996 terrorist bombing at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. The case had stalled and then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh got Ashcroft to transfer it to Comey, who quickly obtained an indictment of 14 suspects.

In January 2002, Bush appointed him the top federal prosecutor in New York, where he brought criminal charges against lifestyle business magnate Martha Stewart, as well as mobsters, Wall Street tycoons and gun-toting thugs. Ashcroft brought him to Washington in December 2003 to be his top deputy.

The FBI has changed dramatically since Mueller assumed the job a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. Detecting and preventing terrorist attacks became the bureau's chief mission for the first time.

FBI agents foiled numerous plots and arrested hundreds of would-be terrorists for planning strikes within the nation's borders. But several potentially catastrophic attacks, including attempts to take down passenger jets and to bomb New York's Times Square, failed only because the bombs malfunctioned, not because the FBI had detected the plots.

The lucky streak seemed to run out on April 15, when two homemade bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon, the first successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2001. The blasts killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

david.savage@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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