News Column

Comey Nearly Quit Justice Dept. Over Spying

June 21, 2013
James Comey (file photo)
James Comey (file photo)

James Comey, who U.S. President Obama is to name as FBI director Friday, threatened a decade ago to quit the Justice Department over electronic eavesdropping.

The former George W. Bush administration deputy attorney general, along with FBI Director Robert Mueller -- who Comey will replace if the Senate approves his nomination -- both threatened to resign March 11, 2004, because of deep legal concerns about central aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program, Comey confirmed to the Senate Judiciary Committee three years later.

"I couldn't stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis," he testified.

"I just simply couldn't stay," he said, referring to his opinion the Bush administration had no legal authority to bypass the courts to order domestic wiretaps without warrants.

Comey and Mueller's resignation threat -- in the face of fierce pressure from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to recertify the controversial program -- became moot the next day, when Bush overruled Card and Gonzales and agreed to make changes to the program's legal framework, Comey told the Senate panel May 15, 2007.

Bush made his decision after meeting individually with Comey and Mueller March 12, Comey testified.

The program was ultimately reauthorized.

Card later left the White House and Gonzales became U.S. attorney general in a tenure marked by controversy regarding warrantless wiretapping of U.S. civilians and the authorization of "enhanced interrogation techniques" of suspected terrorists.

The issues Comey raised about NSA eavesdropping -- when he was appointed acting attorney general while Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery -- are likely to come up during his confirmation hearings, The New York Times said.

He is also expected to be questioned about his views on the NSA's clandestine national security PRISM electronic surveillance program leaked to the news media June 6.

Obama was expected to announce Comey's nomination to lead the FBI at 2:05 p.m. in the White House Rose Garden, the White House said Thursday.

In a statement the White House called Comey, 52, "one of our nation's most skilled and respected national security and law enforcement professionals."

"In more than two decades as a prosecutor and national security professional, Jim has demonstrated unwavering toughness, integrity and principle in defending both our security and our values," the statement said.

Comey, who is married and has five children, left the Justice Department in 2005 and was a senior vice president and general counsel to defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. until 2010.

In June 2010, Comey joined the Bridgewater Associates LP hedge fund, with $75 billion in investments for clients, including universities and foreign governments.

He left the hedge fund in January and now teaches national security law at Columbia Law School in New York.

The Senate, which will not be in session in August, is expected to have a number of partisan battles over other nominations in July and may not be able to confirm Comey by Sept. 3, when Mueller must leave his post, the Times said.

Mueller, 68, became FBI director Sept. 4, 2001, a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He has served two years longer than the traditional 10-year term for FBI directors.

Mueller has overseen the FBI's transformation into a domestic intelligence agency, seeking to prevent future terrorist attacks, from an agency focused on solving crimes.

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Source: Copyright UPI 2013

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