Relatively quick Senate endorsement awaits James B. Comey, who’s being formally introduced this afternoon as President Barack Obama’s choice to take over the FBI. But not before senators on both sides rehearse what they don’t like about the current state of federal law enforcement.
The top Republicans and Democrats on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees have already signaled their support for Comey, whose selection was leaked three weeks ago in an effort to unearth any unexpected senatorial resistance. None has surfaced.
That’s a sign that, while Obama’s choices of Thomas E. Perez for Labor secretary and Gina McCarthy for EPA director remain stalled, Obama has avoided at least one potential summertime hassle in Congress by choosing a topflight nominee with a GOP pedigree. After serving as the top federal prosecutor in New York, Comey was deputy attorney general for two years of the Bush administration.
But senators have plenty of concerns about the behavior of the agency Comey would run for the next 10 years. Robert S. Mueller III, whose extended term as director ends in September, revealed in Hill testimony this week that the FBI has been using drones for domestic surveillance. The disclosure is sure to spur questions for Comey about what protections for civil liberties ought to be put in place as part of that effort.
He’s also sure to be called on to discuss the recent revelations about the vast amounts of data being collected from Americans’ telephone and Internet records. Senators in both parties have expressed deep reservations about the breadth of those efforts, with some suggesting they’ve intruded on personal privacy so much that it’s time to reconsider the main anti-terrorism laws permitting those collections — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the so-called Patriot Act.
Both statutes were written while Comey was a senior Justice Department official, and he mounted high-profile resistance against efforts by the Bush White House to maintain an expansive program of warrantless wiretapping. At one point in 2004, he rushed to the hospital room of his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, to prevent him from acquiescing to the request of Bush officials at his bedside that he sign off on a continuation of those efforts.
Comey's fans in both parties say the incident suggests he’s a public servant who will put principle over politics in dealing with presidents of either party.
Since Robert Mueller's term began, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI’s mission has undergone a fundamental transformation away from traditional law enforcement and into to counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
Comey will face plenty of questions about his future view of the FBI, its role in investigating national security leaks, his own work for a hedge fund since leaving government service seven years ago, and his roles while at Justice in the indefinite detention and waterboarding decisions.