President Barack Obama plans to nominate James Comey, a former hedge fund executive and a former senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert Mueller as the director of the FBI, according to a person with knowledge of the selection.
Comey, 52, was chosen for the position over the other finalist for the job, Lisa Monaco, who has served as the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser since January. By choosing Comey, a Republican, Obama made a bipartisan choice at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty confirming some important nominees.
Some Democrats had feared that if the president nominated Monaco — who oversaw national security issues at the Justice Department during the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in September — Republicans would use the confirmation process as a forum for criticism of the administration’s handling of the attack.
As deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, Comey was a critical player in 2004 in the dramatic hospital room episode in which the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, tried to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft — who was ill and disoriented — to reauthorize a warrantless eavesdropping program.
Comey, who was serving as the acting attorney general and had been tipped off that Gonzales and Card were trying to go around him, rushed to Ashcroft’s hospital room to thwart them. With Comey in the room, Ashcroft refused to reauthorize the program. After the episode, Bush agreed to make changes in the program, and Comey was praised for putting the law over politics.
The Obama administration had hoped to announce the nomination several weeks ago, but delayed it after the Boston Marathon bombings. Senior FBI officials believed that if a candidate had not been nominated by the end of May, there may not have been enough time to confirm the candidate before the departure of Mueller, 68. He is mandated by law to leave his post by Sept. 4.
The Boston bombings, which marked the worst attacks on United States soil since Sept. 11, 2001, have raised questions about Mueller’s legacy and the bureau’s counterterrorism efforts. While the FBI has been praised for helping to catch one of the suspected bombers, 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 suspected bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police that ended with his being run over by a vehicle driven by his escaping brother.
Comey will inherit a bureau that is far different from the one Mueller took over a week before 9/11. In the aftermath, 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 Mueller, and the bureau has heavily invested in its facilities and capabilities, improving its computer systems, forensics analysis and intelligence sharing.
In the year to come, Comey, who most recently served as the general counsel for the large Connecticut hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, will be confronted by the bureau’s budgetary shortfalls created by across-the-board budget cuts. He will also be forced to expand his knowledge of cybersecurity, which Mueller made one of the bureau’s chief priorities after counterterrorism.