Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Sources say Comey is President Obama's pick to lead the FBI.

FBI Pick James Comey Nailed Martha Stewart, Nearly Capsized Bush

Comey credits the word 'death' with inspiring his legal career.

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Sources say Comey is President Obama's pick to lead the FBI.
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President Barack Obama will nominate James Comey to replace Robert Mueller as FBI director, several news organizations reported Wednesday evening. Comey served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005 during the George W. Bush administration and in 2004 famously refused to reauthorize a secret warrantless wiretapping program.

Comey's enviable career path began at the College of William and Mary, where he spent his first three years as a chemistry major before seeing the word "death" on a bulletin board that advertised a religion course. He credits the course with an epiphany: that he should pursue law school rather than medical school.

Comey attended the Williamsburg, Va., college after being rejected by Harvard and Princeton, "to their eternal regret," he told the student publication The Virginia Informer in a 2009 interview.

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Before joining the Bush administration, Comey served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2002 to 2003, where he prosecuted WorldCom executives for fraud and Martha Stewart for lying about insider trading. He handled the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing investigation as an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia and was lead prosecutor in the 1993 murder and racketeering case against mobster John Gambino.

Comey decided to charge Stewart, who ultimately served five months in jail, because "if it was Jane Doe she would have been prosecuted," he told the student newspaper. "[T]here were 2,000 cases by the Justice Department that year for providing false statements during an investigation. I thought of my hesitation about the case due to someone being rich and famous, and how it shouldn't be that way. I decided we had to do it."

In the same interview, Comey said he had never discussed with reporters a planned mass resignation of top Justice Department officials in 2004 over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program – and he said he never would.

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"I've never given an interview on this topic and I'm going stick to that rule," Comey said. "A couple reasons I have not discussed this: I have no interest in being famous. ... Another reason is I think that lawyers involved in sensitive matters should not discuss them."

During jaw-dropping testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007, Comey summarized the events that led to the mass resignation threat.

Comey was serving as acting attorney general in March 2004 while then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis. Comey refused to reauthorize a secret National Security Agency warrantless wiretap program that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel determined was illegal.

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White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, Comey testified in 2007, went to Ashcroft's bedside in a bid to overrule him on March 10, 2004. But Comey had been tipped off and dashed to the hospital room, arriving minutes before the White House officials.

"I am not the attorney general. That's the attorney general," a semi-conscious Ashcroft told Card and Gonzales, pointing to Comey. Bush reauthorized the program the next day without Justice Department approval.

"I had witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," Comey told senators. "I prepared a letter intending to resign. … I couldn't stay if the White House was engaging in conduct that had no legal basis."

Comey's draft resignation letter, published by the Washington Post, described the impasse as an "apocalyptic situation" where "the Justice Department and I have been asked to be part of something that is fundamentally wrong."

Mueller, who had also threatened to resign, and Comey met separately with Bush the next day, who agreed to "do the right thing, and put the program on a footing that we could certify its legality," Comey testified, avoiding the mass resignation.