New FBI chief choice: Expedient at a time of spying scandals

James Comey railed against warrantless wire-tapping; his appointment comes at good time for this administration

By Natasha Lennard

Published May 30, 2013 4:55PM (EDT)

Tapping James Comey to be FBI director is so well-timed this week, one would be forgiven for seeing calculated politicking behind the maneuver -- or its timing at least. As the Obama administration reels and scrambles in the wake of two major scandals, in which the government was revealed to be spying on protected journalistic activity, what better time to promote the man who publicly (and admirably) railed against Bush-era warrantless wire-tapping.

As Bush's former deputy attorney general, Comey famously stood against (and even threatened to resign over) the Bush administration's warrantless wire-tapping program. He refused to sign off on the legality of the program as acting attorney general, while then-A.G. Richard Ashcroft was ill in hospital. Comey reacted with fury when aides from the Bush administration went to the ailing Ashcroft's bedside, to try and convince him to override Comey's ruling against the unconstitutional eavesdropping program.

As the New York Times reported:

In the 2004 episode that defined Mr. Comey’s time in the Bush administration, the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, and Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., sought to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft — who was hospitalized and disoriented — to reauthorize the administration’s controversial eavesdropping program.

Mr. Comey, who was serving as the acting attorney general and had been tipped off that Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card were trying to go around him, rushed to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to thwart them. With Mr. Comey as well as Mr. Mueller in the room, Mr. Ashcroft refused to reauthorize the program. Mr. Bush later agreed to make changes in the program, and Mr. Comey was widely praised for putting the law over politics.

In choosing a Republican, Obama's choice of Comey will carry bipartisan support. But the really smart move here is the choice of an FBI chief with a reputation for defending privacy and constitutionality. Comey's appointment will not serve to smooth over concerns about the government's war on leaks and sprawling surveillance apparatus. But as far as politically expedient and public relations-savvy promotions go, this one ticks a lot of boxes.

Watch Comey's memorable testimony as he raged against the Bush aides' attempts to manipulate Ashcroft:


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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