/ 29 October 2012

FBI top job awaits Obama or Romney decision

US President Barack Obama.
US President Barack Obama.

Attorney General Eric Holder has not publicly ruled out serving at least part of a second term if President Barack Obama wins re-election on November 6 and wants to keep him in place. Obama was to have filled the FBI job in 2011 but postponed the appointment, persuading Congress to extend the term of director Robert Mueller by two years, until September 2013.

Campaign advisers to Republican challenger Mitt Romney have drawn up lists of potential nominees for both jobs, as well as for other justice department positions that require confirmation by the Senate, people familiar with the situation said.

Those discussed for attorney general in a Romney administration include former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, head of the Chertoff Group consulting firm; former deputy attorney general Mark Filip, since moved to the law firm Kirkland & Ellis; former White House Deputy Counsel David Leitch, general counsel at Ford Motor Co and J Michael Luttig, general counsel at Boeing Co.

Former deputy attorneys general George Terwilliger, who is joining the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Larry Thompson, general counsel at PepsiCo Inc, are also mentioned.

Former solicitor general Paul Clement of the Bancroft law firm, best known for arguing in March against Obama's healthcare law, and former acting Attorney General Peter Keisler, now at the Sidley Austin law firm, are talked about for attorney general or for a judgeship.

All served in the George W Bush administration except for Luttig and Terwilliger, who served under George HW Bush. Romney's campaign has listed Chertoff, Filip and Terwilliger as advisers.

Romney could turn to a governor, such as Virginia's Bob McDonnell, or a senator, such as retiring Jon Kyl of Arizona, if he wants an attorney general with more political experience.

"The governor is focused solely on his job as chief executive of the commonwealth," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. Other possible candidates for both jobs declined to comment or did not respond to requests.

Naming replacements
A Romney campaign spokesperson had no comment on appointments.

Obama's decision for attorney general would be less pressing if he were to win a second term, because Holder could presumably stay on until a replacement is named. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is most often mentioned as a possible successor to Holder.

Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara, also frequently mentioned as a future Obama attorney general, brushed off Washington in an interview this month with the Financial Times. He told the newspaper that the politics-obsessed US capital is "not quite my cup of tea".

Republicans have tried to push Holder from office because of Operation Fast and Furious, a botched operation that targeted gun smuggling along the United States-Mexico border. An inspector general report in September cleared Holder of wrongdoing.

Only one attorney general, Janet Reno during Bill Clinton's presidency, served close to two full terms in the modern era.

For director of the FBI, there is some overlap between the Obama and Romney camps. Possible candidates for either administration include Patrick Fitzgerald, a former US attorney in Chicago who recently joined the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Kenneth Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general for national security now at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. Other possible Romney candidates for the FBI job include Filip and Terwilliger.

Obama's choices two years ago were said to include former deputy attorney general Jim Comey, the general counsel at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates; John Pistole, head of the transportation security administration; and Michael Mason, a former top FBI official now at Verizon Communications Inc.

A White House spokesperson had no comment on appointments.

Presidential candidates were once criticised as presumptuous for drawing up lists of possible Cabinet members.

But thinking has changed because of the need for continuity between administrations. In 2010, Obama signed a law that, for the first time, formally provides office space, security clearances and other resources to someone in Romney's position.

A transition from Obama to Romney would witness three distinct waves of new staffers coming into the administration: those who plan the takeover from November to January, those who enter government offices on Inauguration Day January 20, and those who begin later, after Senate confirmation.

The appointments will give the election's winner two primary opportunities to enact his agenda. Democrats traditionally use the justice department to reinforce such areas as civil rights and consumer protection, while Republicans often emphasise drug enforcement and the vetting of nominees for federal courts.

The department determines which side the government will take in court on subjects such as same-sex marriage, abortion and affirmative action to secure racial diversity.

The contrasting priorities are rarely mentioned during the US presidential campaign, despite the broad portfolio.

Democratic Vice President Joe Biden offered a rare indication of the stakes in July when he asked the NAACP, the largest US civil rights group, to "imagine what the Romney justice department will look like."

The two sides are "fundamentally different," he said.

Republicans have accused Obama's justice department of improperly considering race in cases showing a "disparate impact" among racial groups, and of unfairly burdening business.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told a business conference on Wednesday that the Justice Department was taking too long on corporate investigations, creating uncertainty.

Only a "different view from the justice department" would improve matters, said Giuliani, a Republican who once served in the department's number three position. – Reuters