With a new poll showing over three-quarters of U.S. voters, including 63% of Democrat respondents, supporting a special prosecutor being appointed to investigate the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups, President Obama is being forced to nominate Republican James B. Comey to be the next Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Comey commands bipartisan respect for his courageous stand as the Acting Attorney General for the Bush Administration to block efforts to implement broad-based and unwarranted domestic surveillance of Americans. Given that FBI Directors usually serve for long periods, the Obama Administration would have been keen on appointing a Democrat with strong ideological credentials. But with four major scandals engulfing the White House, the Obama Administration is in no position to wage a partisan confirmation campaign and decided to nominate a conservative Republican to be the next Director of the FBI.
Mr. Comey and his wife are both registered Republicans and donated to the Presidential campaigns of U.S. Senator John McCain in 2008 and Governor Mitt Romney in 2012. Mr. Comey was also the target of tremendous opposition by liberals in 2009, when it was reported by Politico that his name had been included on a “short list” for nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. John Brittain of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stated, “He was deputy attorney general serving in Bush’s administration. He came in with the Bushies. What makes you think he’d be just an inch or two more to the center than [Chief Justice] Roberts?”
After leaving the FBI, Mr. Comey served as General Counsel of Lockheed Martin and the $145 billion Bridgewater Associates Hedge Fund. Currently, he serves as a Hertog Fellow on National Security Law at Columbia University Law School and is a Board Member of the Board of HSBC Holdings, the second largest bank in the world.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Comey made a name for himself as the Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division of the New York U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting the Gambino Mafia crime family. He later prosecuted the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing case in Saudi Arabia. Based on his strong national security credentials, he was promoted in 2002 to be the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and led the investigations of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Two years later, he became the number two agent at the FBI and ran the day to day operations for 30,000 employees.
Mr. Comey would replace Robert S. Mueller III, who has served as FBI Director for almost 12 years, after also being appointed by President George W. Bush in September of 2001. Mr. Mueller, a former highly decorated Marine, is credited with transforming the FBI into one of America’s chief weapons in the War on Terror.
In early January 2006, The New York Times, as part of their investigation into alleged illegal domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, reported that Mr. Comey, who was Acting Attorney General during the March 2004 surgical hospitalization of John Ashcroft, refused to “certify” the legality of unlimited warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency.
President George W. Bush had issued the NSA an Executive Order and was seeking Justice Department authority to begin blanket monitoring of phone calls, Internet activity, text messaging, and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the U.S., even if the monitoring took place within the U.S. Critics claimed that the NSA snooping was an attempt to silence critics of the Bush Administration policies.
After Mr. Comey’s refusal to certify the Executive Order, Andrew H. Card Jr., White House Chief of Staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then-White House Counsel and future Attorney General, made an emergency visit to George Washington University Hospital in an unsuccessful attempt to win approval directly from Ashcroft for the program. Mr. Comey went to the hospital to give Ashcroft support to withstand White House pressure.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May of 2007, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III stated that he agreed with Mr. Comey’s position and that both men were prepared to resign if the White House ignored the Department of Justice’s opinion on the illegality of NSA wiretapping. Faced with a Constitutional crisis and a public relations nightmare, President Bush reluctantly agreed to significant reductions to the surveillance program’s scale and breadth.
The White House’s willingness to nominate a pro-privacy advocate as FBI Director, at a time the Administration is mired in multiple scandals over trashing privacy, demonstrates Obama’s desperate need to try to regain the public trust. Nominating Mr. Comey may be useful for the Obama Administration to remind Americans that the Bush Administration also tried to trample privacy rights.
But with revelations that a key IRS manager took the Fifth Amendment and the Senate Judiciary Committee may seek indictment of Attorney General Eric Holder for perjury, a tough new Republican FBI Director may soon be investigating the Administration.