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Obama to nominate Jim Comey as next FBI chief on Friday

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will nominate Jim Comey to be the next FBI director on Friday, picking a former Justice Department official who has deep experience in the U.S. battle against terrorism, a White House official said on Thursday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Comey, a Republican, would replace FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has led the agency since just before the September 11, 2001, attacks. Mueller is expected to step down this fall.

A White House official said Obama would make the announcement about Comey on Friday afternoon.

"In more than two decades as a prosecutor and national security professional, Jim has demonstrated unwavering toughness, integrity, and principle in defending both our security and our values," the official said.

Comey, 52, served as deputy U.S. attorney general for President George W. Bush. He had previously been the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

As assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Comey had handled the Khobar Towers bombing case that arose out of an attack on a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Seventeen U.S. military members died in the attack.

Comey gained notoriety for refusing in 2004 to certify the legal aspects of National Security Agency domestic surveillance during a stint as acting attorney general while John Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis.

That refusal prompted two senior White House officials - counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card - to try to persuade Ashcroft to sign the certification. Comey, who was in the room, said Ashcroft refused.

Comey later told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a 2007 hearing that the situation was "probably the most difficult night of my professional life." His actions endeared him to many Democrats opposed to Bush's domestic surveillance program.

The surveillance program resurfaced as a major bone of contention this month when it was revealed that the U.S. government maintained an expansive surveillance program targeting internet and phone communications. Obama has staunchly defended the program.

Comey, after leaving the Justice Department in 2005, became general counsel to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp until 2010. He most recently joined Columbia University's law school as a senior research scholar after working for Bridgewater Associates, an investment fund, from 2010 to 2013.

The Washington, D.C.-based Federal Bureau of Investigation serves as both a federal criminal investigative agency and a domestic intelligence body.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh)

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