WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to nominate James B. Comey, a former senior Justice Department official who famously challenged a secret eavesdropping program during the George W. Bush administration, to replace Robert S. Mueller III as director of the FBI, officials said Wednesday.
Comey, 52, threatened to resign as deputy attorney general rather than give his consent to the secret interception of international calls routed through the United States. Bush had authorized the domestic surveillance effort after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In March 2004, Comey and Mueller rushed to a hospital room where Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was gravely ill. They stood firm when Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, and Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, tried to convince Ashcroft to sign a legal extension of the warrantless wiretapping program. Because of Ashcroft’s illness, Comey was acting attorney general.
The incident helped cement Comey’s reputation as a principled lawyer who would not bend the law just to please his superiors in the White House.
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.
The White House will seek to win Senate confirmation for Comey before the congressional recess in August. Mueller, who has served as FBI chief since 2001, is set to retire in September.
Comey stepped down from the Justice Department in 2005 — a year after the hospital room showdown — and became general counsel to Lockheed Martin Corp. More recently, he has been in private practice.