WASHINGTON — In his farewell speech in the Great Hall of the Justice Department nearly two years ago, James B. Comey, the outgoing deputy attorney general, paid tribute to the work of the department on his watch, and the "reservoir of trust and credibility" its thousands of employees had built up with the public over the years.
"It doesn't make me worry about leaving," he said, "because this institution ... was in great shape when I got here and will be in great shape when I'm gone."
But Comey was harboring doubts about the new boss, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, say his friends and associates. Indeed, some close to him believe his opinion of Gonzales hastened his departure from the Justice Department once Gonzales became attorney general in February 2005.
Now out of government, Comey went public Tuesday with the origins of his concerns about Gonzales. In vivid detail, he disclosed an incident in which Gonzales, when he was the White House counsel, tried to essentially strong-arm then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft -- hours after Ashcroft had had major surgery -- into signing off on a secret national security order that the Justice Department opposed.
His testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee has thrust Comey into the unexpected position of witness for the prosecution in the congressional investigation of Gonzales and allegations that he politicized the department, a drama that could cost the attorney general his job.
Comey's disclosure that Gonzales decided at the time to push ahead with the secret eavesdropping program -- even though the Justice Department said doing so would be illegal -- raised new questions Wednesday about Gonzales' judgment.
Citing Comey's testimony, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is considering a presidential candidacy, became the latest Republican senator to call for Gonzales' resignation.
"The American people deserve an attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of our country, whose honesty and capability are beyond question," Hagel said in a statement. "Atty. Gen. Gonzales can no longer meet this standard. He has failed this country. He has lost the moral authority to lead."
Asked about Hagel's comment about Gonzales' moral authority, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow replied: "We disagree, and the president supports the attorney general."
Comey, now the senior vice president and general counsel of Lockheed-Martin Corp., was not available for comment, his office said Wednesday.
But friends and former associates said his decision to leave reflected a pent-up frustration with the direction of the department and what he perceived as sinking morale under Gonzales.
"Most people who ever worked at the Department of Justice revere the place and its traditions and its nonpolitical bent, and I think he was offended by what's happened," said a former co-worker who requested anonymity because of an internal Justice investigation into the firings.
Viet Dinh, a Justice Department official from 2001 to 2003, said: "Knowing Jim Comey, he does not take these actions lightly. It is obvious that he cares deeply about the integrity of the Department of Justice and its viability."
Comey has become the unofficial spokesman for the foot soldiers who make the department run and whose morale has been said to be sinking to new lows under Gonzales. Two weeks ago, he told another congressional panel that many of the U.S. attorneys that Gonzales agreed to replace last year were, in his view, some of the most able public servants he had ever seen.
Comey is the unusual high-level Justice official who worked in the trenches as a career prosecutor, first hired by then-U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York in 1987. In postings in New York; Richmond, Va.; and Washington, he prosecuted mobsters, terrorists and gun-toting street thugs.
He got President Bush's attention after he secured the indictment of 14 men in the case of the 1996 terrorist bombing at the Khobar Towers apartments in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen. The case had stalled under the watch of prosecutors in Washington. Then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh got Ashcroft to transfer it to Comey, then a federal prosecutor in Richmond, and Comey prepared an indictment in three months.
In 2002, Bush appointed him the top federal prosecutor in New York, where he brought criminal charges against lifestyle maven Martha Stewart and a host of corporate tycoons and investment bankers.
"Comey was probably the most aggressive Republican prosecutor in the white-collar field since ... Rudolph Giuliani," said Jack Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School.
Ashcroft brought him to Washington in December 2003 to be his deputy. Before the month was out, Comey appointed his friend Patrick J. Fitzgerald to be the special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation that led to the conviction earlier this year of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.