A Six-Foot-Eight Prosecutor Who Stared Down Bush to Lead FBI

The lawyer President Barack Obama plans to nominate as the next FBI director made his name as a prosecutor of terrorists who also resisted demands by President George W. Bush’s White House for broad authority to wiretap without court approval.

Along the way, James B. Comey Jr. developed a loyal following of fellow attorneys and law enforcement agents, according to colleagues, classmates, bosses and friends. That talent for gathering support will be critical if he’s confirmed to lead a Federal Bureau of Investigation that’s challenged to meet new threats of terrorism and international cyber-crime at the same time its budget is being squeezed.

“People feel that they will be involved in something important if they work with him, and that he will absolutely do the right thing,” Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney and a friend of Comey’s, said in a phone interview. “It’s going to be an adventure and great things will get done - - very few people can say no to that.”

Comey’s nomination hasn’t been announced. Two people familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said Obama has settled on him for the job.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who will leave in September after 12 years on the job, has warned lawmakers that across-the-board budget cuts threaten the agency’s capabilities.

“Operational cuts and furloughs will impact the FBI’s ability to prevent crime and terrorism, which in turn will impact the safety and security of our nation,” he said in May 15 testimony to a Senate panel.

Boston Bombing

Comey also would inherit a probe by lawmakers into whether the FBI, which had investigated one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers prior to the April 15 attack, failed to see warning signs that might have headed off the bombing.

In 2005, Comey left as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department to become general counsel of Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland. He moved to Bridgewater Associates LP of Westport, Connecticut, in 2010, leaving there early this year. He is a non-executive director on the board of the London-based bank HSBC Holdings Plc and the Hertog Fellow on National Security at Columbia University Law School in New York.

Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he planned to probe Comey’s work in the private sector, specifically at Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. Grassley said he did “appreciate” Comey’s experience on national security issues.

Wiretap Stance

Comey has been put in uncomfortable positions before, most notably with a stance he took as deputy attorney general less the three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

A classified program that involved warrantless wiretapping was deemed illegal by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Comey concurred and, in a dramatic evening stand-off, backed down Bush administration officials who attempted to persuade a hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize the program.

Comey, along with several of his top deputies, prepared to resign as a result of the meeting. Instead, Bush agreed to revisions in the program.

“He had a steel backbone,” Ashcroft recalled in a phone interview about his former top deputy. “He knew how to use all the resources and welcome all the points of view in making a decision, but once the decision had been made, he wasn’t susceptible to being pushed away for inappropriate reason for things like politics.”

Terrorism Measures

Yet Comey signed off on other the Bush administration anti-terror programs. He approved “some of the worst abuses committed by the Bush administration,” American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said.

Romero cited Comey’s senior Justice Department role as the administration pursued indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and harsh interrogation techniques. The ACLU, which does not take an official position on nominations, called on lawmakers to give Comey “careful scrutiny.”

The six-foot-eight-inch grandson of a Yonkers, New York, police chief, Comey, 52, began his career as a government attorney in New York. He became the top terrorism prosecutor in Virginia, then the U.S. attorney for Manhattan and capped his government service as deputy U.S. attorney general.

Comey’s experience with terrorism predates the Sept. 11 attacks. He secured indictments for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex for U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia that killed 19. The case put Comey in front of top officials in the Bush administration, which he would soon join.

Making Impression

John B. Bellinger, the former legal adviser to the National Security Council, recalled sitting in the Situation Room in 2001 when Comey was brought in to brief officials on the state of the Khobar Towers investigation.

“I remember thinking, ‘This guy has a great future,’” said Bellinger, now a at partner Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington.

Soon after, he was appointed as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, an office that had been vacated by prosecutor Mary Jo White, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who went on to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Comey quickly impressed the lawyers in that office, according to Jacob W. Buchdahl, a former assistant U.S. attorney there.

Comey’s career highlights were important. “But he was loved at the U.S. attorney’s office as much for the time he spent walking around the floor where the most junior prosecutors worked,” said Buchdahl, now a partner with Susman Godfrey LLP in New York.

Christie’s Recollection

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, endorsed Comey yesterday. Christie’s office released an excerpt from remarks he made at a town hall last year, about an encounter years earlier when Comey was about to visit the New York Times editorial board.

“I said, ‘You’re John Ashcroft’s deputy attorney general and you’re going to the New York Times editorial board? Do you have a death wish? And he looked at me and he said, ‘No, Chris, I look at this completely differently. I’m going to the New York Times editorial board because it’s harder to hate up close.’”

The nomination of a former Bush administration official who has drawn praise from Democrats will probably make for an easy confirmation, according to Richard Hertling, a 25 year veteran of positions as a Republican aide in the Senate and House and as an official in the Justice Department.

“I really don’t see any hiccups in his confirmation,” Hertling, a former law school classmate of Comey’s who is now of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, said in an interview.

Hertling recalled the mix of humor and seriousness Comey brought to his time while at the University of Chicago’s law school. He also recounted his legend from the basketball court, where Comey and his tall frame were part of a dominant intramural basketball team. It was a theme that would continue throughout his career.

Ashcroft recalled his team of senior Justice Department officials, Comey included, which regularly took on a team of U.S. attorneys in pickup games at a court underneath the FBI building.

“They had a bunch of guys that played big time college basketball,” Ashcroft recalled. “But we were always ready for them.”

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