James Comey

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

Bush-era confrontation shaped FBI pick

  • New York Times
  • June 21, 2013 - 8:30 PM

– If it weren’t for a now famous scene in a hospital just blocks from the White House, it is unlikely that James Comey would have been standing in the Rose Garden on Friday to be introduced as President Obama’s nominee as FBI director.

Comey was serving as acting attorney general in the Bush administration’s Justice Department when he became the central figure in the most dramatic constitutional crisis of the nation’s 12-year war on terrorism, and his role in the events surrounding that showdown on March 10, 2004, have shaped his public life and reputation.

His confrontation with White House officials that March night in the cramped confines of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s room at George Washington University Hospital has since made him lionized as a guardian of the Constitution for resisting pressure to rubber-stamp a National Security Agency surveillance program that he and others at the Justice Department believed violated the law.

‘An important factor’

A senior White House official said Friday that Comey’s part in the 2004 crisis was “an important factor in the president’s decisionmaking” when he selected him to succeed Robert Mueller as director of the FBI. Obama alluded to Comey’s role in announcing his choice Friday, praising Comey as a man of “fierce independence and deep integrity.”

Despite the showdown, in which Comey refused the request of White House aides to reauthorize a program for eavesdropping without warrants, he was later willing to go along with most of the Bush administration’s surveillance operations. He and his allies, including Mueller, backed down from their threats to resign in protest after the White House made modest adjustments.

Comey did not object to the key element of the Bush administration’s program — the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens inside the United States. Instead, he focused on trying to curb a large data mining operation inside the United States, similar to programs at the center of the current controversy over the National Security Agency.

Some former colleagues said Comey’s actions were not as heroic as they have been portrayed.

‘Nothing to do with it’

In an interview, Andrew Card, a chief of staff to President George W. Bush and one of the White House officials who wanted Ashcroft to sign off on the surveillance program, played down the idea of a hospital confrontation, saying that at the time he hadn’t realized that Comey had taken over as acting attorney general and that he was not trying to railroad him. “Politics had nothing to do with it,” Card said.

But a thorough review of the episode — included in a 2009 report by the inspectors general from five federal agencies — supports Comey’s version of events. The joint inspector general report notes that some senior Bush White House officials, including Card, refused to be interviewed for their report.

Comey, 52, a longtime federal prosecutor, was appointed deputy attorney general in December 2003, at a time of growing turmoil over the Bush administration’s most contentious policies in the war on terror. For more than two years, White House officials had been creating a counterterrorism infrastructure that stretched the bounds of U.S. law, and they had relied on a junior attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, John C. Yoo, to provide them with the legal backing needed for their actions. When Yoo resigned in May 2003, however, Ashcroft put new lawyers in charge of the Justice Department’s national security legal portfolio who were unwilling to bend so easily to the demands of the White House.

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