Former Bush Official Said to Be Obama Pick to Lead F.B.I.
James B. Comey, who was deputy attorney general at the time, testifying in 2005 on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to nominate James B. Comey, a former hedge fund executive who served as a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert S. Mueller III as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to two people with knowledge of the selection.
By choosing Mr. Comey, a Republican, Mr. Obama made a strong statement about bipartisanship at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty winning confirmation of some important nominees. At the same time, Mr. Comey’s role in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Bush administration — in which he refused to acquiesce to White House aides and reauthorize a program for eavesdropping without warrants when he was serving as acting attorney general — should make him an acceptable choice to Democrats.
It is not clear when Mr. Obama will announce the nomination. Senior F.B.I. officials have been concerned that if the president does not name a new director by the beginning of June, it will be difficult to get the nominee confirmed by the beginning of September, when Mr. Mueller by law must leave his post.
The White House declined to discuss Mr. Comey on Wednesday. But according to the two people briefed on the selection, Mr. Comey traveled from his home in Connecticut in early May to meet with the president at the White House to discuss the job. Shortly afterward, he was told that he was Mr. Obama’s choice, and they met again for a further discussion.
Mr. Comey, 52, was chosen for the position over the other finalist, Lisa O. Monaco, who has served as the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser since January. Some Democrats had feared that if the president nominated Ms. Monaco — who oversaw national security issues at the Justice Department during the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September — Republicans would use the confirmation process as a forum for criticism of the administration’s handling of the attack.
In the 2004 episode that defined Mr. Comey’s time in the Bush administration, the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, and Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., sought to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft — who was hospitalized and disoriented — to reauthorize the administration’s controversial eavesdropping program.
Mr. Comey, who was serving as the acting attorney general and had been tipped off that Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card were trying to go around him, rushed to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to thwart them. With Mr. Comey as well as Mr. Mueller in the room, Mr. Ashcroft refused to reauthorize the program. Mr. Bush later agreed to make changes in the program, and Mr. Comey was widely praised for putting the law over politics.
According to testimony Mr. Comey provided to Congress in 2007, Mr. Ashcroft rose weakly from his hospital bed when Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card approached and refused to approve the program.
“I was angry,” Mr. Comey said in his testimony. “I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper.”
Mr. Comey, whose nomination was first reported by NPR, will inherit a bureau that is far different from the one Mr. Mueller took over a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In the aftermath of those attacks, Mr. Mueller undertook the task of remaking the bureau into an intelligence and counterterrorism agency from one that had concentrated on white-collar crime and drugs. The number of agents has grown to roughly 14,000 from 11,500 under Mr. Mueller, and the bureau has heavily invested in its facilities and capabilities, improving its computer systems, forensics analysis and intelligence sharing.
But the bombings at the Boston Marathon have raised questions about Mr. Mueller’s legacy, as well as the effectiveness of the bureau’s counterterrorism efforts. While the F.B.I. has been praised for helping to catch one of the bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Congressional Republicans have raised questions about whether the bureau missed a chance to avert the attack. In 2011, it closed a file it had opened on the other suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with the police.
In the year to come, Mr. Comey, who teaches at Columbia Law School after having served as general counsel for the large Connecticut hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, will be confronted by the bureau’s budgetary shortfalls, created by across-the-board cuts. He will also be forced to expand his knowledge of cybersecurity, which Mr. Mueller made one of the bureau’s chief priorities after counterterrorism.
Mr. Comey, who at 6-foot-8 usually towers over anyone in his presence, graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1985, and then had a meteoric rise at the Justice Department, culminating in his service as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005.
His first job was as an assistant United States attorney in Manhattan trying criminal cases. He worked briefly in private practice and went on to oversee the United States attorney’s office in Richmond, Va., where he made a name for himself as he pioneered Project Exile, a program that helped cut the high homicide rate in the city by shifting firearm prosecutions from state court to federal court, where there were stiffer sentences.
While Mr. Comey was working in Richmond, Mr. Ashcroft asked him in 2001 to take over the government’s foundering investigation of the 1996 terrorist bombing at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American service members.
The F.B.I. director at the time, Louis J. Freeh, had urged Mr. Ashcroft to take the case away from federal prosecutors in Washington who had been investigating for five years but had not brought charges.
With a legal deadline looming, Mr. Comey and a colleague feverishly moved forward with the case and within three months indicted 14 men.
Mr. Comey’s work on that case caught the attention of the White House, which two months after the Sept. 11 attacks nominated him to become the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the highest-profile jobs in the department. In that position, Mr. Comey oversaw the prosecutions of Martha Stewart, WorldCom executives and international drug dealers.
Mr. Mueller had been required to leave his job in 2011 because of a 10-year term limit that was imposed by Congress in 1976. That measure had been put in place in an effort to prevent directors from amassing the power that J. Edgar Hoover had during his 48-year tenure leading the bureau.
But in 2011, Mr. Obama asked Mr. Mueller to remain in his post. His administration had considered candidates like Raymond W. Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner; Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago; Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general for national security; and Mr. Comey. But administration officials did not think they were good fits, and they wanted to keep Mr. Mueller on because the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency were getting new leaders.
The president asked the Senate to extend Mr. Mueller’s tenure by two years, and the measure was unanimously approved in July 2011.