Likely FBI pick Comey wins praise as a no-politics choice

President Obama’s pending nomination of James B. Comey, a former deputy attorney general in the administration of George W. Bush, to head the FBI is the latest move by Mr. Obama to rely on Republicans to serve in key posts on his national-security team.

When Mr. Obama took office in 2009, he kept Robert M. Gates, defense secretary under Mr. Bush, in the job until July 2011. After Democrat Leon E. Panetta served 20 months as defense secretary, Mr. Obama again turned to a Republican, former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, to fill the post at the Pentagon.

The president also tapped Gen. David H. Petraeus, once a registered Republican, to lead the CIA in 2011, although he resigned in November after admitting an extramarital affair.

Mr. Comey, 52, whose nomination is expected within weeks, would replace FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who by law must leave the job in early September. Congress extended Mr. Mueller’s 10-year term in 2011 for another two years at Mr. Obama’s request.

“He’s a very strong individual, devoted to the Constitution, focused on the rule of law, and with a backbone that would make steel jealous,” Mr. Comey’s ex-boss, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, said.

Although Mr. Comey is a Republican, he has earned a reputation for not allowing partisan politics to get in the way of his job and of standing up to top officials in his own party, including Mr. Bush. Perhaps the most dramatic example came in March 2004, when Mr. Comey was serving as acting attorney general while Mr. Ashcroft was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery.

Mr. Bush and his top aides at the time wanted Mr. Comey to certify the legality of a National Security Agency domestic surveillance program, which was facing expiration under existing White House procedures. The Justice Department had ruled that the program would not be lawful without certain changes and, when Mr. Comey refused to certify it, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. decided to visit Mr. Ashcroft in his hospital room to obtain his signature to reauthorize the surveillance.

But Mr. Comey heard about their plans and rushed to Mr. Ashcroft’s bedside at George Washington University Hospital, arriving just before the White House aides. He urged Mr. Ashcroft, who was reportedly groggy from medication, not to sign the document.

By one account, Mr. Ashcroft pointed to Mr. Comey and told the White House officials, “There is the attorney general.”

Mr. Bush subsequently ordered that changes be made to the program.

Mr. Ashcroft declined to discuss the hospital episode Thursday, but he said Mr. Comey has demonstrated the strength to resist political pressure.

“I don’t know of anyone who is less likely to be influenced by political pressure than Jim Comey,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “He’s not oriented to politics and opinion polls. This is not a trifling individual.”

It wasn’t the only time Mr. Comey caused heartburn for the Bush administration. In 2003, he appointed his friend Patrick J. Fitzgerald as independent counsel in the CIA leak case that led to a perjury conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr.

In 2004, Mr. Comey supported Justice Department colleagues who withdrew a legal memo that had justified harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists. And in 2007, after leaving government, Mr. Comey publicly praised several U.S. attorneys who had been fired by the Bush administration for alleged poor performance.

Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican, worked with Mr. Comey when they were both U.S. attorneys and called him “a terrific choice.” He said Mr. Comey has proved his character “in the crucible.”

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