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Obama set to pick ex-Bush official as FBI boss

James Comey was a senior Justice Department official. He was the acting attorney general when John Ashcroft was ill.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

James Comey was a senior Justice Department official. He was the acting attorney general when John Ashcroft was ill.

WASHINGTON — President 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 S. Mueller III as the director of the FBI, according to a person with knowledge of the selection.

By choosing Comey, a Republican, Obama made a strong statement about bipartisanship at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty confirming some important nominees.

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At the same time, 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 warrantless eavesdropping program when he was serving as acting attorney general — should make him an acceptable choice to Democrats.

It is not clear when Obama will announce the nomination. Senior FBI officials have feared that if the president did not name a new director by the beginning of June it would be difficult to get Comey confirmed by the beginning of September, when Mueller by law must leave his post.

Comey, 52, was chosen for the position over the other finalist for the job, 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 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.

In the 2004 hospital drama that defined Comey’s time in the Bush administration, the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., tried to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft — who was ill and disoriented — to reauthorize a warrantless eavesdropping program.

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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 widely praised for putting the law over politics.

Comey will inherit a bureau that is far different from the one Mueller took over a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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 from 11,500 to roughly 14,000 under Mueller, and the bureau has heavily invested in its facilities and capabilities, improving its computer systems, forensics analysis, and intelligence sharing.

But the bombings in Boston have raised questions about Mueller’s legacy as well as the effectiveness of 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 died after a shootout with the police that ended with his being run over by a vehicle driven by his escaping brother.

Comey graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1985, then had a meteoric rise at the Justice Department, culminating in his service as the department’s second-ranking official from 2003 to 2005.

His first job was as an assistant US attorney in Manhattan trying criminal cases. He worked briefly in private practice and went on to oversee the US attorney’s office in Richmond, where he made a name for himself as he pioneered Project Exile, a program that effectively cut the high homicide rate in the city by shifting firearm prosecutions from state court to federal court, where there were stiffer sentences.

While working in Richmond, Ashcroft asked Comey in 2001 to take over the government’s foundering investigation of the 1996 terrorist bombing at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American service members.

The FBI director at the time, Louis J. Freeh, had urged 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 over them, Comey and a colleague rapidly moved the case forward and within three months indicted 14 men.

Comey’s work on that case caught the attention of the White House, which in November 2001 nominated him to become the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the highest profile jobs in the Justice Department.

In that position, Comey oversaw the prosecutions of Martha Stewart, WorldCom executives, and international drug dealers.

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