Comey to head FBI

With the Department of Justice in an uproar already over Operation Fast and Furious — which has not gone away — and the snooping scandals as well as a new problem with Eric Holder and potential perjury charges, the last thing the Obama administration needs is more controversy in its law-enforcement efforts.  FBI Director Robert Mueller will retire shortly, and the White House made what looks like a safe choice to replace him:

President Barack Obama is prepared to nominate James Comey, a former Bush administration official with bipartisan credentials, as the next FBI director. In a possible warning sign, the top Republican on the Senate committee that would review the nomination said Comey would face questions about his ties to Wall Street.

Three people with knowledge of the selection said Wednesday that Obama planned to nominate Comey, who was the No. 2 at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. Comey was general counsel to Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates from 2010 until earlier this year and now lectures at Columbia Law School.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wonders whether Comey would be tough on his recent colleagues in the hedge-fund industry:

Grassley said in a statement late Wednesday he had not heard from the White House about Comey’s nomination but said Comey possessed a lot of important experience on national security issues.

“But, if he’s nominated, he would have to answer questions about his recent work in the hedge fund industry,” Grassley said. “The administration’s efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and his agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues.”

I’m not sure how well this objection can be sustained.  One reason that Wall Street execs didn’t get prosecuted is that the Obama administration didn’t make it a priority; another is that it would be difficult to prosecute them when most of the underlying problem was caused by Congress and administrations of both parties in government manipulation of the mortgage markets for social engineering.  Comey didn’t have much to do with that, and most of his recent colleagues in the hedge-fund industry probably didn’t, either.

Comey has shown considerable independence in his past work within the DoJ, much to the frustration of Republicans at the time:

However, Comey is widely viewed as an apolitical prosecutor and is best known for rebuffing pressure from Bush’s White House to approve the reauthorization of a terrorist surveillance-related program in 2004.

The dispute culminated in a dramatic showdown at the hospital bedside of an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft, with White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card pressing Ashcroft to sign off on continuing the highly classified program and Comey racing to the scene to urge the attorney general to reject the White House’s entreaties.

That’s been getting plenty of attention overnight, and for good reason.  However, let’s not forget that Comey was actually negotiating for continuing the program under more legal parameters:

The current FBI director, Robert Mueller, also rushed to the hospital at Comey’s request. Comey prevailed in the dispute, with changes made to accommodate his legal objections. The details of the program that prompted the fight remain classified.

Comey has managed to stay out of the political battles since 2007 and had a long record for aggressive prosecution in terrorism cases.  He’s not someone who can be easily rolled by an administration.  At least at first blush, he appears to be exactly the kind of leader everyone would like to see at the top of the FBI.  Unless something very specific pops up, I’d bet on a smooth ride for Comey once his nomination becomes official.

Update: Marc Ambinder remembers the nuance of Comey’s intervention:

Jim Comey, who President Obama will reportedly nominate to run the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is best known for a singular act of courage: When the Bush administration wanted to act like the rule of law was inconvenient, he said no. In doing so, he pissed off the White House, many of his own colleagues, made an enemy of Dick Cheney for life, and earned plaudits from civil libertarians as a liberal-minded man of the people.

All true. But Comey also helped to institutionalize the very program — the National Security Agency’s orderless domestic collection — that his refusal to sanction had put the breaks on. He did not object to the part of the program declassified by the Bush administration. He believed that the president’s Article II power did in fact provide enough cover for the NSA to collect call records from subscribers who were reasonably believed to be connected to overseas terrorists or their associates.

It’s a lot more gray than black and white.