James Comey Comes to Criminal Law Class

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Oct. 18, 2007 (NEW YORK) -- James Comey, former Bush administration deputy attorney general, dropped by Professor Daniel C. Richman’s class on federal criminal law for an informal Q & A session with students and faculty on Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Comey is perhaps best known for recent Congressional testimony in which he described his intervention in 2004 at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft to prevent White House officials from persuading Ashcroft to reauthorize the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.
While Comey declined to go into the specifics of the dramatic bedside scene, he talked freely about other recent events and his distinguished legal career, which includes stints as a federal terrorism prosecutor in New York and in Virginia. (Comey left the Justice Department in August 2005 and is now the general counsel and senior vice president of Lockheed Martin.)
While there has been much scrutiny of the alleged politicization of the Justice Department recently, Comey said that in his experience the vast majority of department officials tried to be apolitical.
“When I worked at Justice, I didn’t have any idea of which people were Republicans or Democrats, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “Of course, the president is entitled to appoint an attorney general who will carry out the president’s priorities, and I don’t think we should change that. But it’s important that the department itself is not partisan or become perceived that way.”
As an example, Comey offered his corruption investigation targeting a popular black mayor of Richmond, Va. “Historically, Richmond has had a long history of racial tension,” he said. “But once we took over the investigation, no one ever charged us of being racist. Once a case is picked up by the FBI or the Justice Department, there’s a special credibility that goes with that.”
After his stint in Richmond, Comey was tapped to become deputy attorney general. When Alberto Gonzales took over from Ashcroft, the new attorney general asked Comey to stay on, Comey said. “He only asked me one question: ‘Can you do the job?’”
Much of his work focused on terrorism, and Comey said he would like to see the Justice Department take a larger role in prosecuting terrorism. And while he has opposed some of the Bush administration’s legal interpretations for expansive powers, he says some allowances must be made to deal with the post 9-11 world.
“If you have an American citizen, like a [Jose] Padilla, who is intent on doing the United States harm, you can’t take the traditional tack of waiting to accumulate sufficient evidence or simply tail him to his co-conspirators,” Comey said. “There’s a real threat of leaving him out there, and you need to have some kind of preventive detention system.”