WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has chosen as the next FBI chief a former George W. Bush administration official best known for a dramatic hospital bedside standoff against a warrantless wiretapping program.
White House officials are hoping that James Comey's bipartisan background and two decades of law enforcement experience will help him win Senate approval to replace outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller. Mueller took over the agency the week before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and will have served longer than any director besides J. Edgar Hoover when he steps down Sept. 4.
Mueller transformed the agency into one the country's chief weapons against terrorism, leading Obama to ask him in 2011 to stay on two years beyond his initial 10-year term. The new director would take over as the agency grapples with a privacy debates surrounding a host of recently exposed investigative tactics, and the White House said Obama would announce Comey as the man for the job Friday afternoon in the Rose Garden.
Comey was a federal prosecutor who served for several years as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York before coming to Washington after 9/11 as deputy attorney general. In recent years he's been an executive at defense company Lockheed Martin, general counsel to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, board member at HSBC Holdings and lecturer on national security law at Columbia Law School.
He has shown a willingness to take on battles over government surveillance in the age of terrorism -- an issue that remains prominent in current Washington debate. In a confrontation he has called the most difficult night of his career, he rushed to the hospital bedside of his boss, John Ashcroft, in 2004 to stop two senior Bush White House aides from getting the ailing attorney general's approval to reauthorize a post-9/11 program that allowed government wiretaps to be used without warrants.
Comey's defiance won him respect in Washington, and Republicans have said they see no major obstacles to his confirmation. But he is certain to face tough questions about his recent hedge fund work and his ties to Wall Street as well as 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.
The leaker of those National Security Agency programs, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also is the subject of a criminal investigation. And just this week, Mueller revealed the FBI uses drones for surveillance of stationary subjects and said the privacy implications of such operations are worthy of debate.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which doesn't take positions on nominees, is raising questions about Comey's record on national security. ACLU senior policy counsel Mike German said while Comey stood up to some surveillance, he eventually approved the NSA program, along with interrogation techniques that included waterboarding, as well as defended the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla, an American terrorism suspect.
"We want to make sure whoever sits in that chair has a determined interest in protecting the rule of law, particularly since they will be there 10 years, outlasting this president and potentially the next president," German said.
But the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will oversee Comey's confirmation hearing expressed support for his nomination. Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called for senators to give Comey "the swift and respectful confirmation he deserves."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Comey's experience on national security would benefit the FBI. Grassley also said he wanted to question Comey on his work in the hedge fund industry and on the Obama administration's efforts to prosecute Wall Street for its role in the economic downturn.
In dramatic 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.
Comey was deputy attorney general in 2005 when he unsuccessfully tried to limit tough interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists. He told then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that some of the practices were wrong and would damage the department's reputation.
As U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Comey headed one of the nation's most prominent prosecutorial offices and one at the front lines in the fight against terrorism, corporate malfeasance, organized crime and the war on drugs.
As an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, Comey handled the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. military personnel.
Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler