President Barack Obama today formally nominated former deputy attorney general James Comey to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a move that comes as the White House is focused on quelling privacy concerns about controversial national security surveillance programs.
"I'm not sure I have the words to describe how excited I am to return to the Department of Justice and especially to get to work again with the people at the FBI," Comey said during an afternoon Rose Garden announcement. "They are men and women who have devoted their lives to serving and protecting others, and I simply can’t wait to be their colleague again."
Obama's introduction of Comey described his background as a prosecutor and leader in the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. attorney's office in New York City, but emphasized that Comey's "independence and deep integrity" were just as important as his experience. Comey served as the second-in-command at Main Justice during the George W. Bush presidency.
Obama, in his remarks, strongly alluded to Comey's famous clash with the White House during the Bush administration. Comey had threatened to quit his Justice Department post if the White House went forward with a warrantless surveillance program. The incident aligned Comey with outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller III, who was FBI director at that time. Mueller is set to step down this September.
"He is that rarity in Washington sometimes, he doesn't care about politics, he only cares about getting the job done," Obama said. "He was prepared to give up a job he loved rather than be involved in something he felt was fundamentally wrong."
"I'm confident Jim will be a leader who understands how to keep America safe and stay true to our ideals no matter what the future will bring," Obama said.
The White House and the Justice Department have been under pressure in recent weeks after details of National Security Agency programs were leaked to the media. The government, according to leak documents published by The Washington Post and The Guardian, has been collecting millions of Americans' phone records. The NSA program called PRISM is set up to review Internet communication.
Obama has said the programs balance national security with protecting American's privacy, and has made moves this week to reassure Americans. Earlier on Friday, Obama met at the White House with the newly revived Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to discuss the recent controversies over the spying programs, a senior administration official said.
This week, Obama also directed national intelligence officials—in consultation with the Justice Department—to declassify information that will better contextualize these programs, a senior administration official said. That includes reviewing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and filings to see what the government can share about the programs. That review comes as civil liberties groups are fighting in the secret Washington-based court to gain access to opinions.
Obama urged the Senate to swiftly confirm Comey. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has criticized administration nominations, sent a statement late Thursday praising Comey for his experience on national security issues.
"He's previously dealt with these matters with integrity and shown a willingness to stand his ground if necessary," Grassley said in the statement. "I'm still interested in his recent work in the hedge fund industry. Perhaps Mr. Comey will turn around the administration's abysmal efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn."
Before his nomination as deputy attorney general, Comey spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, with a few brief stints in private practice. Comey left Main Justice as the deputy attorney general in 2005 to join Lockheed Martin as senior vice president and general counsel.
More recently, he served as general counsel at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates L.P. in Connecticut. In March, he was appointed to the board of HSBC Holdings PLC. Earlier this year, Comey joined Col¬umbia Law School as a senior research scholar in national security law.
Grassley said in his statement yesterday that "I’m still interested in his recent work in the hedge fund industry. Perhaps Mr. Comey will turn around the administration’s abysmal efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn.”
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in a prepared statement called Comey "an extraordinarily dedicated public servant, a talented national security and law enforcement executive, and a principled leader with extensive experience in government and the private sector."
"I applaud the President's decision to nominate Jim Comey and I look forward to working closely with him, upon his confirmation, to continue protecting the American people from financial fraud, violent crime and terrorism," Holder said.
Obama also mentioned Comey's height. At 6'8", Comey, the president said, is "a man who stands very tall for justice and the rule of law."