What You Should Know About Jim Comey, Obama's Choice To Lead the FBI

President Obama's choice to lead the FBI has crossed swords with Vice President Cheney, Martha Stewart, and the Gambino crime family—and become close friends with outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder

By: Garrett M. Graff

The reported nomination of Jim Comey to be the next director of the FBI is a strong statement by President Obama about his desire to bring the war on terror into constitutional boundaries—but Comey has made some enemies along the way in Vice President Cheney, Martha Stewart, and the Gambino crime family.

Here’s what you need to know about Jim Comey, all six-foot eight-inches of him:

1) Crime—especially gun crime—for him is a personal crusade. When he was a child, a man broke into his house in New Jersey and held him, his brother, and three neighbors hostage at gunpoint. The culprit was never caught. As a federal prosecutor in Richmond, Comey started "Project Exile,” which federalized local gun cases and delivered harsh sentences to those convicted of weapons charges. Comey’s prime backer in that project? The then-deputy attorney general, Eric Holder. Comey was so proud of his Richmond work that a gun confiscated in Project Exile hung in his office as general counsel at Lockheed Martin after leaving the Bush administration.

2) Public service is important to Jim Comey. Ever since graduating from the College of William & Mary, he’s worked at almost all levels of the Justice Department—and even gave up a job at a top tier law firm in the 1990s to work as a federal prosecutor for the Justice Department. He was deputy attorney general during a critical period after 9/11, helping to calm and to organize the vast federal machinery that had spun to life after the terror attacks. 

3) He was one of the Bush administration strongest voices for what he called "intelligence under law." The key figure in the March 2004 showdown between the Justice Department and Vice President Cheney over the Terrorist Surveillance Program (known as "Ragtime”), Comey—who threatened to resign with FBI Director Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and other Justice officials—forced the White House to bring the program into constitutional boundaries. "It can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in the intelligence community. Hard because we are likely to hear the words, ‘If we don’t do this, people will die,’” Comey told staffers at the National Security Agency in a speech in the summer of 2005. "'No’ must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, and with lives hanging in the balance.... It takes an understanding that, in the long run, intelligence under the law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country."

4) He’s part of the New York mafia. Well, no, not La Cosa Nostra—he actually helped prosecute the Gambino crime family in New York. He’s part of the other New York mafia: the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which Comey headed in the years after 9/11, has long been the 800-pound gorilla in the Justice Department—the breeding ground for powerful prosecutors and Justice officials like Rudolph Giuliani, Louis Freeh, Mary Jo White, Michael Chertoff, and now Preet Bharara. It’s often considered to have some of the Justice Department’s brightest minds—but also is the most powerful office politically, which rankles many others at “Main Justice.” Bob Mueller has spent much of his twelve years in office wrangling the FBI’s New York office and trying to soothe tensions between New York and Washington. Perhaps Comey’s biggest claim to fame in New York? He prosecuted Martha Stewart.

5) His appointment could be one of President Obama’s most important national security legacies. With a ten-year fixed term, Comey’s term as FBI director wouldn’t expire until 2023, lasting through the majority of the next president’s term, even if he or she serves two terms. (President Clinton learned the hard way the challenges of having an oppositional FBI director in Louis Freeh.) FBI directors can only be removed for cause (as happened to William Sessions in the early days of the Clinton administration), so whomever inherits him might face years of Comey.

6) Despite his stellar credentials, Comey’s Senate confirmation won’t necessarily be a breeze. Two years ago, he was on the short list to replace Mueller—before the unprecedented decision by President Obama and Congress to grant Mueller a two-year term extension—and one of the factors working against him then was his key role in the Valerie Plame leak investigation and the indictment of vice presidential aide Scooter Libby. As one source said at the time, “Dick Cheney would call in every chit he has to torpedo Jim Comey.” The weeks ahead will determine whether the passage of time has muted that concern.

Garrett M. Graff is the author of “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War,” the definitive history of the modern FBI, named one of the best nonfiction books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews.