WASHINGTON – From his days as a federal prosecutor to his installation ceremony on Monday as new FBI director, James Comey's law enforcement career was praised Monday by President Barack Obama as a success story that shows Comey is the right choice to lead the high-profile law enforcement agency for the next decade.
Three former FBI directors and two former attorneys general were on hand as Comey told more than 3,000 FBI employees and guests gathered in the agency's courtyard on Pennsylvania Avenue that the FBI must be "independent of all political forces and interests."
Comey took over last month for Robert Mueller, who stepped down after 12 years as FBI director. Obama says he picked Comey to lead the FBI after interviewing many other candidates for the job.
"He's got the resume," but more importantly, a strong sense of right and wrong, Obama said.
In remarks emphasizing that the FBI must never abuse its power, Comey said he will direct that all new FBI agents visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington as a reminder of the agency's excesses of the civil rights era when the FBI treated King and others as internal security threats and spied on them.
There are "dangers of becoming untethered to oversight and accountability," Comey said.
The presence at the event of former Attorney General John Ashcroft symbolized a key piece of Comey's past. In one of the most famous internal battles over the war on terrorism during the George W. Bush administration, Ashcroft and Comey stood together in refusing to sign off on a surveillance program they viewed as illegal.
Seated next to Ashcroft was his former chief of staff, David Ayres, who put in the phone call to Comey in March 2004 to go to the hospital and intercede as White House chief of staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales tried to get the approval of an ill and bedridden Ashcroft.
Ashcroft, Comey and Mueller threatened to resign, and Bush changed the program.
Over the years, said Obama, Comey won the respect of everyone who came in contact with him, even one of the mobsters he was trying to send to prison. The mobster passed along a note praising his prosecutor.
Calling attention to the political warfare over his budget, Obama vowed to fight for the resources the bureau needs to do its job.
The audience at the ceremony included former FBI directors Mueller, William Webster and William Sessions, as well as former attorneys general Ashcroft and Michael Mukasey.
Comey took over last month for Mueller.