President Obama is expected to nominate James Comey, a widely respected former federal prosecutor and deputy Attorney General during the George W Bush administration, as the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country’s most important law enforcement agency.
A formal announcement is expected in the next few days, officials say. Mr Comey, 52, would succeed Robert Mueller, who will have served 12 years in the job when he retires later this summer – the longest tenure since that of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s legendary and all-powerful founder.
After taking a law degree in 1985, Mr Comey spent six years as a federal prosecutor in the high profile Manhattan office, handling drug, mafia and white collar crime cases, before becoming US Attorney in Richmond, Virginia, and then Deputy Attorney General, the second-ranking post at the Justice Department, between 2003 and 2005.
His most famous moment – and the one that made him a hero to many Democrats – came in 2004 when the White House tried to have John Ashcroft, the then Attorney General who was in hospital after emergency gall bladder surgery, sign off on a controversial warrantless phone-tapping programme, as part of the ‘war on terror.’
As White House officials descended on the hospital, so too did his deputy Mr Comey, who like his boss thought the programme was illegal. Not only did Mr Ashcroft refuse to go along, but he, Mr Comey and Mr Mueller all threatened to resign if changes were not made. “I was angry,” Mr Comey told a Congressional committee later, “ I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
Having previously served in a Republican administration but also much admired by Democrats, Mr Comey was widely seen in Washington as a deliberately bipartisan choice by President Obama, in the hope of securing swift confirmation from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But with Republicans in their present cantankerous mood, determined to block Mr Obama at every turn, nothing is certain. A dozen years as a Republican senator on Capitol Hill did nothing to help Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defence Secretary earlier this year – indeed it may have made it harder, as several of his former colleagues accused him of betraying the party cause. Republicans are currently holding up confirmation of at least two other Obama cabinet nominees, even though neutrals consider both of them eminently qualified.