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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
After a long search, President Obama has made his choice to lead the FBI in place of the outgoing director, Robert Mueller. The president is preparing to nominate James Comey, a Republican who helped lead the Justice Department under George W. Bush.
Early in his career, Comey prosecuted terrorism and mob cases, but came to wider public attention for standing up to the Bush White House in a fight over warrantless wiretapping.
NPR's Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson broke the news about Comey's selection yesterday and she's here this morning to talk about that choice. Welcome.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Renee.
MONTAGNE: What prompted the White House to offer the job to Jim Comey? I mean he's a Republican.
JOHNSON: He is a Republican, but he has a deep understanding of the law. And name any high office in federal law enforcement, odds are Jim Comey's had it over the years. He was the number two in the Bush Justice Department. He was the top federal prosecutor in New York. And earlier in his career, he helped pioneer an effort in Virginia to take guns off the street. He has fans across the political spectrum, Renee, except potentially for people in Dick Cheney's orbit, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Remember that Jim Comey, when he was in the Justice Department, appointed a special prosecutor to look into the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame; that search ultimately lead to the prosecution of Scooter Libby, one of Dick Cheney's top aides at the time.
MONTAGNE: And Carrie, though, the president looked long and hard for someone to replace the current FBI director - again, Robert Mueller, he's leaving in several months. Tell us a little about the leading candidate for the job who didn't get it.
JOHNSON: Renee, there was an extensive search and it came down to two people, Jim Comey and Lisa Monaco. Lisa Monaco is also a long-time career prosecutor. She now works in the White House as the president's Homeland Security advisor. We saw lots of photos of her during the Boston Marathon bombing briefing the president. Lisa Monaco also served as chief of staff to Bob Mueller, so she has deep ties to the FBI and is well-known there. Remember, Renee, it was so hard to replace Bob Mueller a couple of years ago when his tenure term ended that the Senate actually passed special one-time only legislation to extend his term for two years, but his time to leave is coming up soon.
MONTAGNE: And as I just mentioned, James Comey was at the center of one of the more dramatic episodes of the Bush administration. Tell us that story.
JOHNSON: This all happened back in 2004. John Ashcroft, the attorney general at the time, was very ill in the hospital. And right around the time that this happened, Jim Comey, his deputy, was put in charge of the Justice Department and something came to Jim Comey's attention. There was a surveillance program that was about to expire and Jim Comey and others in the Justice Department had concerns about its legality. Here's what Comey said about that in some riveting Senate testimony about the incident.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
JIM COMEY: I was very upset. I was angry. 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 because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself, and I said to the attorney general, in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper.
JOHNSON: Renee, what Jim Comey was talking about there was the Bush White House had sent envoys to John Ashcroft's hospital room to try to get him to overrule Comey's decision on this wiretapping issue. And Comey raced to the hospital with an FBI detail trailing him. He is six foot eight and his long legs raced up the stairs to the hospital; he intervened and Ashcroft sided with Comey. After the fact, there were some threats to resign en masse at the Justice Department, including Jim Comey. Ultimately, the Bush White House backed off.
MONTAGNE: And just briefly, what happens next with this?
JOHNSON: OK. So Jim Comey still is undergoing parts of the background check process. The White House has yet to make a formal announcement, though we expect that within a few days. Then Renee, the confirmation hearing. A couple of things likely to come up: Jim Comey's work as a general counsel for a big Connecticut hedge fund and some of the more contentious issues in the Bush Justice Department, including torture.
MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Good work. That's NPR's Justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.