President Obama will reach back into the Bush administration and pick former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey as the new head of the FBI, according to unnamed sources speaking to NPR and multiple other outlets. Corney would become the seventh director of the agency in the fall, after FBI Director Robert Mueller steps down.
Comey, a Republican, is bound to be discussed as a bi-partisan choice. But that's not why he's interesting: Comey was a central figure in a Bush-era drama over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
When the wiretapping program came up for renewal in 2004, Comey was acting as AG while John Ashcroft recovered from surgery in the hospital. He refused to sign off on the legality of the program citing the wishes of Ashcroft before he fell ill. According to the original New York Times story on the confrontation, this prompted two aides from the Bush Administration to go to Ashcroft's bedside, to try and convince him to override Comey. In 2007 testimony, Comey laid out what happened next, via the AP:
When [Alberto] Gonzales appealed to Ashcroft, the ailing attorney general lifted his head off the pillow and in straightforward terms described his views of the program, Comey said. Then he pointed out that Comey, not Ashcroft, held the powers of the attorney general at that moment. Gonzales and [Andy] Card then left the hospital room, Comey said.
"I was angry," Comey told the panel. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."
The former Justice Department staffer even threatened to resign in protest to the program, going so far as to draft a resignation letter using the word "apocalyptic" twice (via the Washington Post):
Ashcroft and Mueller also threatened to resign if the Bush administration didn't make changes to the eavesdropping program. Eventually, the program was tweaked, and the Justice Department signed off on it. Since leaving government, Comey served as general counsel for both Lockheed Martin and Bridgewater Associates.
Comey's nomination, of course, has a secondary effect: his confirmation hearings won't be another opportunity for Republicans to grill the administration on Benghazi. As the New York Times notes, the runner-up for the job is Lisa O. Monaco, who was in charge of national security matters for the Justice Department during last September's attacks.