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Obama nominates James Comey to head FBI

  • President Barack Obama smiles as he announces the nomination of James Comey, left, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director, Friday, June 21, 2013, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

    President Barack Obama smiles as he announces the nomination of James Comey, left, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director, Friday, June 21, 2013, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • James Comey, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013, after President Barack Obama announced he would nominate Comey to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

    James Comey, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013, after President Barack Obama announced he would nominate Comey to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • President Barack Obama smiles as he announces the nomination of James Comey, left, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director, Friday, June 21, 2013, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
  • James Comey, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013, after President Barack Obama announced he would nominate Comey to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As the FBI grapples with scrutiny over government surveillance, President Obama yesterday moved to turn the agency over to James Comey, a top Bush administration lawyer best known for defiantly refusing to go along with White House demands on warrantless wiretapping nearly a decade ago.

Obama cited Comey’s “fierce independence and deep integrity” as he nominated him to replace outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Mueller led the agency for 12 years, longer than any previous director except J. Edgar Hoover, after Obama asked him to stay on beyond his initial 10-year term at a time of global threats. Mueller had moved into the director’s office just the week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Obama applauded him during a Rose Garden ceremony for leading “one of the biggest transformations of the FBI in history to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.”

But Mueller is leaving as the agency of 36,000 employees faces new challenges surrounding its intelligence gathering and criminal investigations. The bureau has parried questions in recent weeks over media leak probes; the Boston Marathon bombings; the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans; and vast government surveillance programs into phone records and online communications. And just this week, Mueller revealed the FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance and said the privacy implications of such operations are worthy of debate.

“This work of striking a balance between our security but also making sure we’re maintaining fidelity to those values that we cherish is a constant mission,” Obama said.

It’s a balance that Comey prominently wrestled with during his time as the No. 2 in Bush’s Justice Department, dramatically illustrated by his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2007 as he recounted a remarkable hospital room standoff with senior White House aides.

Comey told the committee that the showdown March 10, 2004, was “probably the most difficult night of my professional life.” But he said it ultimately resulted in President George W. Bush authorizing him to make changes to an anti-terror program to eavesdrop on domestic telephone calls and email messages without a court warrant.

The hospital confrontation came at the bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had been under intensive care with pancreatitis for a week while Comey served as acting attorney general. Comey said he and Ashcroft had a private meeting just before the attorney general fell ill and had decided they couldn’t reauthorize the program that needed to be renewed by March 11 because of concerns about its legality.

Ashcroft’s and Comey’s opposition was a problem for the White House, which had set up the program with the requirement that it have the attorney general’s signature to proceed. Comey said he told the White House he would not certify the program while he was acting as attorney general because of his concerns.

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