The White House has quietly begun thinking about potential candidates to succeed FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose 10-year term expires next year. The considerations have reached across party lines, according to people briefed on the process – a potential move to pick someone who could preempt a Republican effort to turn a confirmation hearing into a referendum on President Barack Obama’s national security policies.
At the FBI, Mueller’s inner circle is acutely aware that his tenure is drawing to a close, though Mueller himself is said to have not made plans for his life after the FBI.
The search is also said to include people with a range of backgrounds and managerial experience, an indication the administration may not select a candidate from the federal bench like Mueller’s three predecessors, Louis Freeh, William Sessions and William Webster.
While it is not known for certain who is under consideration, the list of potential candidates discussed in law enforcement circles is growing. Among them: Ronald Noble, the head of Interpol who was a top law enforcement official at Treasury during the Clinton years; Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and DOJ special counsel who successfully prosecuted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney; and James Comey, the general counsel at Lockheed Martin and a former Deputy Attorney General who in 2004 bucked the White House by refusing to reauthorize the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping program.
Others include two well-known police officials — Raymond Kelly, the New York police commissioner whose department has sometimes clashed with the FBI; and William Bratton, the former chief of police in Los Angeles. Another possibility: Frances Fragos Townsend, President George W. Bush’s respected chief counterterrorism adviser, who would be the first female FBI Director.
Mueller, 65, was confirmed in August 2001 and began his term on Sept. 4, 2001, just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. He previously served as a federal prosecutor in U.S. Attorneys’ offices in the Northern District of California and in Massachusetts. At the Justice Department, he headed the Criminal Division during the first Bush administration and served as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California from 1998 until 2001.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter noted that Mueller’s term does not expire until 2011 and said he has not seen indications of a White House search for a new director this time.
Additional reporting by David Johnston.
UPDATE: This story has been corrected to clarify that the White House hasn’t formally begun to interview potential candidates for FBI director.
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The New York Times’s Benjamin Weiser had a nice profile Sunday of newly-confirmed Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Read the article here.
Bharara, 40, will take over what is widely considered the most prestigious federal prosecuting job outside of Washington. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under U.S. Attorneys Mary Jo White and James Comey, his mandate includes cleaning up Wall Street fraud.
Preetinder S. Bharara was born in Ferozepur, India, and immigrated to the United States as a infant, the Times reported. His background is multicultural: His father is a Sikh, his mother was Hindu, and both parents fled their home after the upheavals that led to the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. His Muslim father-in-law moved from India into Pakistan. His wife’s grandfather, a Jew, fled to Palestine from Nazi Germany.
“Four different families, practicing four different faiths — all compelled to flee a half century ago because of their religion,” Bharara, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said in a speech to the South Asian Bar Association of New York in 2007, the Times reported.
The Harvard and Columbia Law grad became chief counsel to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 2005 - the move that launched him to his current heights. In the Senate, Bharara helped run the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the Bush administration’s politicized firing of six U.S. Attorneys. His background as a non-partisan prosecutor in New York helped him persuade a reluctant David Iglesias of New Mexico to testify, the Times reported. Iglesias, a Bush appointee, was fired after Republican officials in New Mexico complained he didn’t pursue a voting fraud case against Democrats.
Bharara’s college friend, former George W. Bush administration Assistant Attorney General Viet D. Dinh, told the Times that while he disagrees philosophically with the new SDNY U.S. Attorney, “ I can’t imagine two other people trusting each other implicitly the way Preet and I do.”
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Only three Justice Department lawyers, including then-Deputy Attorney General John Yoo, were privy to the details of the Bush administration’s warantless eavesdropping program, according to a report released today by inspectors general from various intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Click here for The Washington Post story.
The watchdogs — from the CIA, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, and the National Security Agency — could not determine how Yoo “came to deal directly with the White House on legal issues related to the TSP.”
Only Yoo, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and intelligence policy lawyer James Baker were aware of the program initially. The watchdogs called the arrangement ”extraordinary and inappropriate” and concluded that the secrecy hindered the Justice Department’s ability to render legal advice.
From the WaPo:
One former department lawyer, Jay S. Bybee, told investigators that he was Yoo’s superior in the Office of Legal Counsel but was never read into the program and “could shed no further light” on how Yoo became the point man on memos that confirmed its legality. By following this route, the memos avoided a rigorous peer review process.
Yoo prepared hypothetical documents in in the fall of 2001 before writing a formal legal memo in November. By then, Bush had already authorized the initiative.
In that memo, Yoo concluded that the FISA law could not “restrict the president’s ability to engage in warrantless searches that protect the national security” and that “unless Congress made a clear statement in FISA that it sought to restrict presidential authority to conduct warrantless searches in the national security area — which it has not- then the statute must be construed to avoid such a reading,” according to the report.
Once higher-level DOJ officials read his analysis in late 2003 and 2004, they questioned the program’s legality. The report is scant on details of the program, but the watchdogs said Yoo failed to “accurately describe the scope” of the other activities — the ones not disclosed by The New York Times in 2005 — which created “a serious impediment to recertification of the program.”
After Yoo left the department, OLC lawyers Patrick Philbin and Jack Goldsmith were briefed on the program and began meeting with Alberto Gonzales, then White House Counsel, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington. The White House lawyers said they would terminate the program if became a serious problem, but they continued to lobby the Justice Department to support it while the legal problems were sorted out.
On March 9, 2004, intelligence officials and Cheney met to discuss the issue without inviting Justice Department leaders. Cheney suggested that the president “may have to reauthorize without [the] blessing of DOJ,” according to previously unreported notes taken by Mueller described in today’s report. Mueller told the investigators he would have a problem with that approach.
After the now-infamous hospital rush, in which Gonzales and Andy Card tried to prevail on an ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the program, Deputy Attorney General James Comey threatened to resign, and with him FBI Director Robert Mueller III, among other Justice officials.
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The New York Times has a terrific story today about the battles between the Justice Department and the White House in 2005 over legal authorization of torture. Reporters Scott Shane and David Johnston give a contrarian take on the roles of two of the “heroes” of that bitter internal debate - then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and Acting Office of Legal Counsel head Dan Levin, who protested the methods — and puts one of the “villains, “Office of Legal Counsel head Steven Bradbury, in a more sympathetic light. The Times says Comey and Levin agreed the techniques were legal even though they strongly protested their use. Read the story here
What we found the most interesting, though, were the internal emails the Times obtained from Comey to his then-chief of staff, Chuck Rosenberg. (It’s our guess the leak has something to do with the long-delayed release of the Office of Professional Responsibility inquiry into the DOJ lawyers who authorized torture). The emails showed Comey warning repeatedly that while certain interrogation methods might be technically legal, they were wrong and disastrous as policy. Comey fretted about the terrible hit the DOJ as an institution could take as well.
In an April 27, 2022 email to Rosenberg, Comey referred to a favorite tactic of the Bush DOJ — keeping top officials in an “acting” capacity so they’d feel more vulnerable and thus be more pliable. At the time, there was immense pressure on Bradbury from then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top lawyer, for the OLC to approve a reauthorization of certain torture techniques in 2005. Comey wrote:
“I have previously expressed my worry that having Steve as “Acting”- and wanting the job — would make him susceptible to just this kind of pressure.”
In an April 28 email to Rosenberg, Comey said he strongly warned Ted Ullyot, a former White House lawyer then serving as Gonzales’s chief of staff, about the political dangers the AG faced if he succumbed to the pressure from the Vice President and White House.
“I told him the people who were applying pressure now would not be there when the [expletive] hit the fan. It would be Alberto Gonzales in the bull’s-eye. I told him it was my job to protect the department and the A.G. and that I could not agree to this because it was wrong. I told him it could be made right in a week, which was a blink of an eye, and that nobody would understand at a hearing three years from now why we didn’t take that week.”
Comey also relayed a conversation he’d had with Patrick Philbin, an OLC lawyer who was part of the “principled conservative” group that tried to block the flawed legal analysis. Comey said he’d lamented to Philbin that it was fruitless to try speaking directly again to Gonzales, and expressed dismay that Ullyot had no interest in protecting Gonzales the way former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s long-time loyal chief of staff, David Ayers, would have protected Ashcroft.
“I told him I didn’t see a need, given that I had just said things to his chief of staff [Ullyot] that would have lit the prior AG’s COS’s hair on fire. He pointed out that [David] Ayers would never allow this and never allow the AG to be in such jeopardy.” Comey added that the whole mess ”leaves me feeling sad for the Department and the AG.”
“Once again, Patrick Philbin has been the voice of intellectual honesty, and rigor and principle. The world will never know what a hero that young man is. ….. People may think it strange to hear me say I miss John Ashcroft, but as intimidated as he could be by the WH, when it came to crunch time, he stood up, even from an intensive care hospital bed. That backbone is gone.” …
“Please stay in touch with Pat on this. He has been very strong and principled, as usual, but they will put a lot of pressure on him in my absence.”
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Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who stood up against the Bush administration on domestic eavesdropping, is being floated around the White House as a candidate to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Politico reported this afternoon.
Comey is “the sort of unconventional choice – someone who’s not a federal appeals-court judge – that key senators, and some administration officials, have been urging President Obama to consider,” Politico said.
Obama is still in the process of winnowing down the pool of more than a dozen potential candidates for the lifetime appointment. We previously reported that another one of Main Justice’s own, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, is also in the mix to replace Souter.
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