"Doubt at a high level of government is seen as weakness," said… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, James B. Comey was a young federal prosecutor in New York trying to put two Gambino brothers away for life. They were charged with murder, selling drugs, money laundering, racketeering — "the whole kitchen sink," recalled Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Comey's partner on the case.
Fitzgerald was a young prosecutor back then too, and, like Comey, he also would make a name for himself in the years ahead as a crusading attorney in the Justice Department. But in 1993 they were just a pair of rather green prosecutors taking on two top "capos" in one of the nation's most notorious Mafia families. The case ended in a mistrial, but then Comey helped develop a new star witness whose testimony forced John and Joe Gambino to plead guilty.
"What I saw in the courtroom in six months of trial was Jim, very calm and seeing the big picture," Fitzgerald said in an interview Thursday. "When everyone else hits the panic button, he is clear-headed. So if you're going to be stuck inside a foxhole with somebody, he's the one you want to be stuck with."
Comey's next "foxhole," if nominated as expected by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, will be a 10-year-term as director of the FBI. He would step into that office at what many in Washington and around the country call a perilous time.
A dozen years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI has reinvented itself as an intelligence and counter-terrorism organization. Director Robert S. Mueller III took office just a week before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked and had a record of no other terrorist strikes in the U.S. until last month, when three people were killed at the Boston Marathon.
Once in office, Comey would have to face the new reality created by the Boston bombings, which greatly raised the profile of hard-to-stop homegrown attacks. The fact that the bureau had interviewed but did not follow up on one of the alleged bombers before the attack illustrates the challenges confronting a new FBI director.
Fear of cyber-terrorism also hovers. Mueller and Homeland Security officials have warned for years that such attacks could create a computer meltdown with hackers closing banks, airports and potentially parts of the government.
Though Comey is highly respected and likely to be confirmed, he would have to answer tough questions from senators before he tackled those issues at the FBI.
Some senators already are questioning his more recent work in the private sector. Comey has been general counsel for Lockheed Martin at a time when the defense giant had sizable contracts with the FBI. He also helped oversee a large hedge fund as the FBI, and the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, where he had been a prosecutor, has been vigorously prosecuting Wall Street abuses.
Liberal groups have questioned his role as deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, when many civil rights organizations complained that the FBI and federal prosecutors overstepped the Constitution in their pursuit of alleged terrorists.
The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, for instance, criticized a potential Comey nomination over his defense of a secret order that sent a Canadian man to Syria, where he was tortured.
"We're not sure recycling former Bush administration officials is a good formula for protecting civil liberties at the FBI," said Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer for the group.
At the ACLU, Executive Director Anthony D. Romero criticized Comey for agreeing to enhanced interrogation techniques for some detained terrorism suspects, including waterboarding, and the open-ended detention of a U.S. citizen in a military brig. Comey, Romero said, "approved programs that struck at the very core of who we all are as Americans."
But those who applaud Obama's anticipated selection of Comey contend that the 52-year-old lawyer is well prepared.
New Jersey's GOP governor, Chris Christie, himself a former U.S. attorney, called the choice of Comey "outstanding." He also over the years has recounted a story from when the two worked together: The conservative Comey, he said, once told him he met with the liberal New York Times editorial board "because it's harder to hate up close." Ever since, Christie said, "I've tried to live my life that way."
His willingness to follow principle has won Comey respect. He stood up to the Bush White House when administration officials made a late-night hospital visit to try to get an ailing Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to authorize the secret surveillance of telephone calls by the National Security Agency, to which Comey, in charge of the Justice Department in Ashcroft's absence, objected. Amid threats that he and others would resign, the administration promised to adjust its policies.