NY Times: Tough Stand Over NSA Programs Led to Comey's FBI Nomination

Sunday, 23 Jun 2013 10:23 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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James Comey's initial tough stand over a NSA surveillance program led in part to his being picked to replace Robert Muller to head the FBI.

President Barack Obama gave Comey the nod Friday as his nominee to head the FBI, saying his 2004 refusal to rubberstamp a National Security Agency surveillance program showed him as a man of "fierce independence and deep integrity," The New York Times reports.

Comey was serving as acting attorney general on March 10, 2004 when the showdown occurred. Attorney General John Ashcroft had been hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital for acute gallbladder pancreatitis, and Comey, a longtime federal prosecutor, before coming to work at the Department of Justice, was named to fill in for Ashcroft.

Comey took the position just days before the Justice Department was to have its regular 45-day legal reauthorization of a secret NSA program, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel and David Addington, counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, began pressing for approval.

But on March 9, Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, met with Gonzales and said he would not rubberstamp the program, and on the following day, Comey agreed that parts of the program had to be changed before he would agree to reauthorize it.

By that night, Gonzales said Bush told him and Andrew Card, a chief of staff, to go to the hospital and talk to Ashcroft.

Comey advised Ashcroft "not to sign anything."

Gonzales and Card arrived minutes later with the documents required for the reauthorization, and Ashcroft told them they needed to speak with Comey as acting attorney general.

The president reauthorized the NSA program the following day without the Justice Department's approval, and several department and FBI officials considered resigning, including Comey and Mueller.

But even though Comey refused to reauthorize the program, he reportedly did not object to its key element — wiretapping of American citizens without warrants. Instead, he was trying to stop a large data mining operation similar to the one described by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Comey subsequently backed down after the White House made some minor changes to the program.

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