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Comey has experience, integrity the FBI needs

Pundits and politicians are already labeling President Barack Obama’s apparent selection of James Comey as the next FBI director as politically “shrewd” and “smart.” But more importantly, Comey, a Republican, has the background, experience and integrity to be exactly the right person for the job.

The integrity part is already getting the lion’s share of attention, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Comey, deputy to Attorney General John Ashcroft in the George W. Bush administration, had the incredible moxie to say “no” to President Bush and his emissaries in 2004 as they all but demanded that the AG sign off on renewing a warrantless domestic surveillance program.

Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007 of that standoff. The fascinating testimony has been shown repeatedly since Comey’s name emerged last week as Obama’s pick.

The testimony centered on the night of March 10, 2004, when President Bush ordered White House chief of staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to get Ashcroft’s signature to reauthorize the program. Ashcroft was in the hospital gravely ill, and Comey was acting attorney general. Still, Card and Gonzales arrived late at night, over the objections of Ashcroft’s wife, seeking approval. Comey, alerted by the FBI, high-tailed it to the hospital to head off the move. When Card and Gonzales got there, Comey – who had already advised that the program was illegal – was present. Ashcroft refused to sign-off and said Comey was the attorney general anyway. Comey said no, and FBI Director Robert Mueller (who Comey could now succeed) backed him up. Both threatened to resign if the president proceeded as planned to overrule them. Bush backed down.

That incident cemented Comey’s reputation as a person of rock-solid integrity, and gained him lasting fans among Democrats in Congress. And as a staunch Republican, who has supported and donated to Obama’s opponents in the last two elections, he should have GOP support, too.

Crucially, he has the backing of law enforcers, particularly in the FBI. He is a former U.S. attorney who has worked on terrorism, corruption, and organized crime cases in the 1990s. Among those he’s prosecuted? The Gambino crime family, Martha Stewart and those who bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. On many cases, he worked closely with the FBI.

Observers say his experience fits perfectly with the new FBI, which has moved away from being focused on domestic law enforcement to an expanded role as an international intelligence agency with agents worldwide. Comey will be able to corral the agency’s widespread activities, concentrate it on the greatest security threats and ensure it operates lawfully.

The nomination still should receive the highest scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union rightly notes that while working under the Bush administration, Comey oversaw or approved some of its worst abuses, including techniques that experts say constitute torture.

Still, the sum of his life’s work points to an unwavering moral compass that the nation’s top law enforcement agency needs. His words in 2005 to the National Security Agency staff after he left the Bush administration serve to highlight that. He said “it can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in the intelligence community because we are likely to hear the words, ‘If we don’t do this, people will die,’ ‘If we don’t collect this type of information,’ or ‘If we don’t use this technique,’ or ‘If we don’t extend this authority.’ It is extraordinarily difficult to be the attorney standing in front of the freight train.”

But “‘no’ must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, with lives hanging in the balance. … In the long run, intelligence under the law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country.”

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