US President Barack Obama applauds Jim Comey as he takes the podium after he was nominated to become the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigatins (FBI) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013.
(NBC NEWS) -- President Barack Obama on Friday nominated James Comey, a former Justice Department official who helped oversee national surveillance programs under President George W. Bush, as the director of the FBI.
If the Senate confirms his nomination, Comey would replace Robert Mueller who has held the FBI director's post since the week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the Rose Garden of the White House Friday, Obama noted that by law FBI directors serve for only ten years, but that in 2011 he'd asked Congress to extend Mueller's tenure for another two years since transitions in leadership were then under way at the CIA and the Pentagon.
Obama praised Mueller's humility, integrity, and calmness under pressure and added, "Most Americans probably wouldn't recognize him on the street, but all of us are better because of his service."
He said "countless Americans are alive today and our country is more secure because of the FBI's outstanding work under the leadership of Bob Mueller."
Obama said that, as a former federal prosecutor and top Justice Department official in the Bush administration, Comey is "exceptionally qualified to handle the full range of challenges faced by today's FBI, from traditional threats like violence and organized crime, to protecting civil rights and protecting children from exploitation to meeting transnational challenges."
Obama noted that in a dispute with White house officials during the Bush administration over National Security Agency surveillance during the Bush administration Comey had threatened to resign from his Justice Department post.
Praising Mueller, Comey said that "I don't know whether I can fill those shoes but I know that however I do, I will be standing truly on the shoulders of a giant."
Comey, 52, served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, and made headlines when it was revealed he went to dramatic efforts to prevent the reauthorization of a controversial warrantless eavesdropping program. One night in March of 2004, Comey raced to the bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft as two senior Bush officials were en route there in the hopes of getting Ashcroft to approve the continuation of the program.
Comey helped prevent the program's re-authorization and later told Congress he felt like the Bush administration officials attempted to "take advantage of a very sick man."
His actions drew praise from Democrats and Republicans alike, and enjoys widely bipartisan support because of it. The White House has made a concerted effort to highlight Comey's past GOP ties, saying that the president has reached across the aisle to choose the leader of a key agency in his administration amid roiling controversies about national security and electronic surveillance.
Federal Election Commission reports show that Comey donated the maximum individual contribution, $5,000, to Obama's opponent Mitt Romney last year.
Before joining the Justice Department, Comey was known as a successful prosecutor. He initial got on the radar of the Bush White House after taking over the case of a 1996 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. troops. He successfully prosecuted 14 men after being put in charge of the stalled case.
Most recently, Comey has worked in the private sector, serving as general counsel of defense contractor Lockheed Martin and later at investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Earlier this year he joined Columbia University's law school as a senior research fellow and joined the board of international banking giant HSBC.
Andrew Rafferty and Kristen Welker contributed to this report.
By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News