NPR has learned that former Justice Department official James B. Comey is in line to become President Obama's choice as the next FBI director, according to two sources familiar with the search.
Comey, 52, has an extensive track record at the highest levels of federal law enforcement. He served as the deputy attorney general — the second in command at Justice — in the George W. Bush administration, and as the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, where he filed charges against housewares maven Martha Stewart for lying about stock trades, among other notable cases. As a young prosecutor in Virginia, he pioneered an effort to remove guns from Richmond's streets.
In recent years, Comey has worked in the private sector, as general counsel at defense contractor Lockheed Martin and at Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, before leaving that post early this year to teach at Columbia Law School. Comey is a Republican, but he famously threatened to resign in the Bush years over a program that's been described as a form of warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
"I couldn't stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis," he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007, years after the episode. "I simply couldn't stay."
He also angered some in the Bush administration by expanding the mandate of a special prosecutor investigating a leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame — a case that resulted in the prosecution of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a longtime aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
In recent weeks, the White House narrowed the search to just two candidates — Comey and White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. Monaco is a former assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department who only arrived at the White House earlier this year. The Daily Beast recently reported a new assignment in her portfolio — helping to resume transfers of detainees and eventually try to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Monaco would have been the first woman nominated to lead the FBI. It is a familiar place for her; she worked closely with the outgoing FBI director, Robert Mueller. Mueller took office only days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and proved so hard to replace that the Senate passed special, one-time-only legislation to extend his 10-year term.
Mueller is on track to leave this fall, and the White House needs to nominate a replacement soon to finish the confirmation process in time for the Senate's summer break. The choice of FBI director could be one of Obama's most lasting legacies in national security.
Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, declined comment on any personnel decisions regarding the FBI, and another source told NPR it could be several days before Obama makes a formal announcement.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. NPR has learned that former Justice Department official James Comey is in line to become the next FBI director. Comey would succeed the current director, Robert Mueller. President Obama is expected to nominate Comey, a Republican who gave money to Obama's opponents in 2008 and 2012. Comey has extensive law enforcement ties and a background that could help him gain bipartisan support in the Senate.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now. And, Carrie, this process to pick a new FBI director went on for some time. Who were the leading candidates?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Robert, down to the wire, there were two leading candidates. One was Jim Comey, the former deputy attorney general, number two in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush years. And the second finalist was Lisa Monaco. She had led the national security unit in President Obama's Justice Department. Earlier this year, she moved over to the White House to give him advice about homeland security and other issues. The Daily Beast late last week reported she was taking over the task of trying to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, which will keep her more than busy for some time to come.
SIEGEL: Well, what tipped the scales for Jim Comey, in the end?
JOHNSON: Jim Comey is known for being a really straight shooter, Robert. He has big bipartisan credentials and also some credibility on issues of national security, fighting terrorism, prosecuting people responsible for the Khobar Towers bombings, among others. And remember, Khobar Towers was that bombing in Saudi Arabia. But he's also known for protecting civil liberties and fighting for the rule of law.
SIEGEL: Now, Comey is best known for resisting certain surveillance efforts pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney a decade ago. Remind us what happened then.
JOHNSON: So back in 2004, Robert, Vice President Cheney and others wanted to renew authority to use some kind of warrantless wiretapping program involving American citizens. Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital, very sick. And Jim Comey, who was then Ashcroft's deputy, found out that the White House was sending an envoy to Ashcroft's hospital room to try to get Ashcroft sign off on this program. Jim Comey rushed over to the hospital, ran up the stairs to the hospital room and resisted this. Ashcroft wound up siding with Jim Comey and the upper echelon of the entire Justice Department threatened to resign unless the White House backed down, which it did.
SIEGEL: So, Carrie, what you're reporting is that the White House has settled on Comey for FBI director, but they haven't yet made a formal nomination. Why not?
JOHNSON: Robert, my sources tell me Jim Comey has been offered the job officially, and he has accepted it. There are some background check procedures still under way at this point.
SIEGEL: So what comes next?
JOHNSON: The announcement we expect in the next several days, then a confirmation hearing. Robert, the White House needs to get Jim Comey confirmed before the Senate breaks for the summer.
SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Carrie Johnson reporting on the news that the White House has settled on James Comey, former Justice Department official in the administration of President George W. Bush, to be the next director of the FBI. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.