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Obama plans to nominate ex-Justice official to head FBI

James Comey is perhaps best known for a standoff over a wiretapping program at the hospital bed of John Ashcroft.

MOLLY RILEY /Reuters/File 2004

James Comey is perhaps best known for a standoff over a wiretapping program at the hospital bed of John Ashcroft.

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday plans to nominate President George W. Bush’s former number two at the Justice Department, James Comey, to lead the FBI as the bureau grapples with privacy debates over a host of recently exposed investigative tactics.

Comey is perhaps best known for a remarkable 2004 standoff over a no-warrant wiretapping program at the hospital bed of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Comey rushed to the side of his bedridden boss to physically stop White House officials in their attempt to get an ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the program.

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If confirmed by the Senate, Comey would serve a 10-year tenure and replace Robert Mueller, who has held the job since the week before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Mueller is set to resign on Sept. 4 after overseeing the bureau’s transformation into one the country’s chief weapons against terrorism.

The White House said in a statement that Obama would announce his choice of Comey on Friday afternoon.

Comey, 52, was a federal prosecutor who severed for several years as the US attorney for the Southern District of New York before coming to Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks as deputy attorney general.

In recent years he has been an executive at defense company Lockheed Martin, general counsel to a hedge fund, board member at HSBC Holdings, and lecturer on national security law at Columbia Law School.

The White House may hope that Comey’s Republican background and strong credentials will help him through Senate confirmation at a time when some of Obama’s nominees have been facing tough battles.

Republicans have said they see no major obstacles to his confirmation, although he is certain to face tough questions about his hedge fund work, and how he would handle current, high-profile FBI investigations.

The FBI is responsible for both intelligence and law enforcement with more than 36,000 employees.

It has faced questions in recent weeks over media leak probes involving the Associated Press and Fox News; the Boston Marathon bombings; the attack at Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans; and two vast government surveillance programs into phone records and online communications.

Comey played a central role in holding up Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, one of the administration’s great controversies and an episode that focused attention on the administration’s controversial tactics in the war on terror.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007, Comey said he thought the no-warrant wiretapping program was so questionable that he refused to reauthorize it while serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft’s hospitalization. Comey said when he learned that the White House chief of staff and counsel were heading to Ashcroft’s room despite his wife’s instructions that there be no visitors, Comey beat them there and watched as Ashcroft turned them away.

‘‘That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life,’’ Comey testified. He said he and Ashcroft had reservations about the program’s legality, but he would not discuss details since the program was classified.

Senior government officials had expressed concerns about whether the NSA, which administered the warrantless eavesdropping program, had the proper oversight in place. Other concerns included whether any president possessed the legal and constitutional authority to authorize the program as it was carried out at the time.

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