Evan Vucci, Associated Press
James Comey

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to nominate James B. Comey, a former senior Justice Department official who famously challenged a secret eavesdropping program during the George W. Bush administration, to replace Robert S. Mueller III as director of the FBI, officials said Wednesday.

Comey, 52, threatened to resign as deputy attorney general rather than give his consent to the secret interception of international calls routed through the United States. Bush had authorized the domestic surveillance effort after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In March 2004, Comey had rushed to the hospital room where Attorney General John Ashcroft lay gravely ill. He stood firm when Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, and Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, tried to persuade Ashcroft to sign a legal extension of the warrantless wiretapping program. Because of Ashcroft's illness, Comey was acting attorney general.

Comment on this story

The incident helped cement Comey's reputation as a principled lawyer who would not bend the law just to please his superiors in the White House.

FBI and Justice Department officials said Comey and Lisa Monaco, now the White House counterterrorism adviser, were interviewed in April about the FBI director's job and were the two top candidates.

The White House will seek to win Senate confirmation for Comey before the congressional recess in August. Mueller, who has served as FBI chief since 2001, is set to retire in September.

Comey stepped down from the Justice Department in 2005.