New York Tenure Shaped F.B.I. Nominee’s Security Views
One fall day in 1977, a high school senior and his younger brother were at home alone in Allendale, N.J., when a gunman broke into their house and ordered them to lie on a bed. The intruder aimed the gun at the younger brother’s ear and threatened to “blow his head off” if the older boy moved.
The brothers eventually managed to escape, and although a man was arrested, no indictment was ever brought. “I have a very keen sense of what it did to me,” the older boy recalled a decade ago. “I thought I was going to die.”
That boy was James B. Comey, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, who has reportedly been selected by President Obama to be the next chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But just as Mr. Comey’s handling of terrorism and insider trading cases in New York shaped his view of national security and law enforcement, he made it clear that his empathy for crime victims came from a much earlier source: the night that he and brother were held up at gunpoint in suburban New Jersey.
“People are always talking about being mugged, but I know what people feel after something like that,” he said in a 2002 interview with The New York Times.
Today, Mr. Comey, a Republican, is perhaps best known for his tenure as the United States deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush who vigorously countered efforts by White House aides to reauthorize a program of surveillance without warrants. But he spent his formative law enforcement years in New York, where he served as a young prosecutor in the 1980s and returned as the United States attorney four months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Looking back at those years provides an insight into an aggressive prosecutor who garnered many fans inside and outside of his office, but also critics who contended that his approach imperiled the civil rights of defendants, like the time he defended the government’s decision to have a high-profile terrorism suspect declared an enemy combatant.
“The F.B.I. director today,” said Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the former United States attorney in Chicago and a longtime friend of Mr. Comey’s, “has to be focused on keeping people safe from terrorists and cybercrime but also from bank robbers and fraudsters, and to do that within the rule of law. I think Jim gets that.”
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Mr. Comey “served as prosecutor at a time when New York’s focus shifted from crime to terrorism, and the ability to oversee both will be just what he needs at the F.B.I.”
Mr. Comey, who is 52 and 6-foot-8, was born in Yonkers. His grandfather, William J. Comey, was a patrolman during the Prohibition era and worked his way up to lead the Police Department there. He graduated in 1982 from the College of William and Mary and obtained a law degree in 1985 from the University of Chicago.
While clerking for Judge John M. Walker Jr. in Manhattan, he decided to become a prosecutor after watching two assistant United States attorneys handle a stormy bail hearing for a reputed Genovese crime boss.
After a year in private practice, he joined the office of Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the United States attorney in Manhattan. A member of the hiring committee was a prosecutor named Louis J. Freeh, who later served as F.B.I. director in the Clinton administration.
Mr. Comey spent six years in the office. His most significant case involved a racketeering, murder and drug trafficking trial in 1993 of four members of the Gambino crime family crew, which he tried with Mr. Fitzgerald, then his colleague.
About 10 years later, as deputy attorney general, Mr. Comey appointed Mr. Fitzgerald as special counsel to investigate the leak that led to the prosecution of I. Lewis Libby Jr., a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Comey left New York in 1993 for Richmond, Va., where he was in private practice and worked as a senior federal prosecutor. In 2002, he returned to Manhattan as United States attorney.
He had a tough act to follow: Mary Jo White had served in the post for almost a decade, but the return was smooth. “He wasn’t just some guy who came from D.C. or Virginia,” said Roberto Finzi, a former colleague. “He was one of us who was coming back. And people really felt that and appreciated that.”
In his nearly two years in that position, Mr. Comey’s office prosecuted such high-profile defendants as Martha Stewart, executives of Adelphia Communications and WorldCom, as well as Lynne F. Stewart, a lawyer who was charged with material support for terrorism.
He also aggressively defended the decision to declare Jose Padilla, an American citizen accused of trying to build a radioactive bomb, an enemy combatant.
When Mr. Comey was named deputy attorney general in late 2003, Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a brief in support of Mr. Padilla, said that “nothing about Mr. Comey’s tenure in New York suggests he will be a friend of the Constitution when he joins John Ashcroft in Washington.”
Mr. Dunn echoed those thoughts on Friday, extending them to cover most of Mr. Comey’s tenure from 2003 to 2005 as deputy attorney general. Mr. Comey’s confirmation hearing, he said, “will provide an important opportunity to assure that the F.B.I. fully understands its role in protecting civil liberties.”
Mr. Comey declined to comment.
But another critic’s view has evolved. Walter E. Dellinger III, the lawyer who in 2005 argued Martha Stewart’s appeal, said of Mr. Comey: “I believed then, and still believe, that his office’s decision” to prosecute Ms. Stewart was “a mistaken exercise of prosecutorial judgment.”
But Mr. Dellinger said he had since heard Mr. Comey speak about the tensions between national security and individual rights, and found him to be “very thoughtful on those issues,” to have a “fine sense of the complex balance one needs to make.”