FBI Director Nominee Christopher Wray Could Help Steady The Bureau Amid Turmoil | KUOW News and Information

FBI Director Nominee Christopher Wray Could Help Steady The Bureau Amid Turmoil

Jul 11, 2017
Originally published on July 11, 2017 3:33 pm

Christopher Wray's friends and mentors use one word to describe him: steady.

That trait could come in handy at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where employees have been reeling since President Trump fired Director James Comey two months ago.

Wray, 50, has spent years working in and around the U.S. Justice Department, making national security policy and overseeing cases against corrupt business executives. But he's operated outside the spotlight, by design.

Taking a job where his predecessor was dismissed under questionable circumstances and with miles to go on his 10-year term is a bit out of character. But Michael Luttig, who's known Wray for decades, said he's making the right choice.

"Chris is exactly the person both the country and the FBI need at this time in our history," said Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge who hired Wray to serve as his law clerk. "Chris is fiercely independent; he is a man of unquestioned integrity, and he has impeccable judgment."

Senators on the Judiciary Committee are expected to press that point, among others, during Wray's confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Luttig said Wray will steer the FBI and its agents away from political firestorms and focus on the job.

This week, the FBI Agents Association agreed, offering its strong support for the nomination. In a statement, president Thomas O'Connor told NPR his organization is "confident that [Wray] understands the nature of investigative work and the centrality of Special Agents to the mission of the FBI."

That's probably because Wray has seen that work from the inside. He served as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta before he moved to Washington for top jobs inside the George W. Bush Justice Department.

Wray was a key part of a team struggling to protect national security after the Sept. 11 attacks, heading to work in the morning before dawn, and hoping that his socks matched once he got to the office.

"Those were very intense times," recalled friend and colleague Andrew Hruska. "We understood that we were handling some of the most significant issues in the country, and Chris was at the epicenter."

That's what worries David Cole, national legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. Cole said he has a lot of questions about Wray's government service after Sept. 11, and senators should, too.

"In our torture database, which we created through documents we received under the Freedom of Information Act, Chris Wray is named on 29 documents," Cole said. "And these are all documents related to the Bush administration's use of torture and coercive interrogation tactics against detainees."

Cole said Wray got notice about mistreatment of detainees, and at least one death. But his responses were redacted. So it's not clear what, if anything, he did.

That's important, Cole said, because some of the biggest pushback in those years came from inside the FBI.

"We rely on the FBI to play an independent role at its best," he said. "So the question is, are we putting at the head of the FBI someone who has shown that independence, or are we putting at the head of the FBI someone who has been a 'yes man' to programs that raise very serious civil liberties and human rights concerns?"

Wray's friends and former colleagues say he's prepared to stand up for his values. He's the son and the grandson of prominent lawyers in New York. And he was willing to resign over a surveillance dispute during the Bush administration, right along with Comey and Robert Mueller, the man now leading the DOJ's special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.

His friend Andrew Hruska said Wray agreed to consider the FBI post for the right reasons, including his reverence for the Justice Department. According to documents released in connection with the nomination, Wray would give up a $9 million annual salary and clients such as big banks and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"He thinks clearly, he makes commitments, he keeps commitments," said Hruska, who met Wray 45 years ago, in kindergarten. They went on to attend the same high school, college and law schools before becoming partners at the firm King & Spalding.

But Hruska said that Wray knows where the lines are and won't cross any.

"If Chris felt there was a reason to leave, I think he would leave unhesitatingly," he said.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The FBI has been reeling since President Trump fired its director, James Comey, in May. Now the Senate is getting ready to consider his replacement. Christopher Wray has spent years working in and with the Justice Department. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports that unlike Comey, Wray has kept a low profile.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Christopher Wray's friends and mentors use one word to describe him - steady.

ANDREW HRUSKA: He thinks clearly. He makes commitments. He keeps commitments.

JOHNSON: That's Andrew Hruska. And he should know. They met in kindergarten when they were 5 years old. They're still friends and law partners 45 years later. Now Wray's preparing to give up a $9 million salary and preparing to give up clients like big banks and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to join the FBI.

HRUSKA: He's stepping out of what's an extremely successful private practice of law to lead the agency that is central to American law enforcement.

JOHNSON: Usually Chris Wray operates outside the spotlight by design, so taking a job where his predecessor was fired under questionable circumstances is a bit out of character. Michael Luttig, who's known Wray for years, thinks Wray is making the right choice.

MICHAEL LUTTIG: Chris is exactly the person both the country and the FBI need at this time in our history.

JOHNSON: Luttig is a former federal appeals court judge who hired Wray to be his law clerk.

LUTTIG: Chris is fiercely independent. He is a man of unquestioned integrity. And he has impeccable judgment.

JOHNSON: Luttig says Wray will steer the FBI and its agents away from politics. This week the FBI Agents Association offered its strong support. President Tom O'Connor told NPR Wray understands how investigations work, probably because Wray has seen that work from the inside. He served as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta before he moved to Washington for top jobs inside the George W. Bush Justice Department. Wray was a key part of a team struggling to protect national security after the September 11 attacks, heading to work in the morning before dawn and hoping that his socks matched when he got to the office. Andrew Hruska remembers.

HRUSKA: These were very intense times. We understood that we were handling some of the most significant issues in the country. And Chris was at the epicenter.

JOHNSON: That's exactly what worries David Cole, the national legal director at the ACLU. Cole says he has a lot of questions about Wray's government service after 9/11.

DAVID COLE: In our torture database, which we created through documents we received under the Freedom of Information Act, Chris Wray is named on 29 documents. And these are all documents related to the Bush administration's use of torture and coercive interrogation tactics against detainees.

JOHNSON: Cole says Wray got notice about mistreatment of detainees and at least one death. But his responses were redacted, so it's not clear what, if anything, he did. That's important, Cole says, because some of the biggest pushback to that program in those years came from inside the FBI.

COLE: We rely on the FBI to play an independent role at its best. So the question is, are we putting at the head of the FBI someone who has shown that independence? Or are we putting at the head of the FBI somebody who has been a yes man to programs that raise very serious civil liberties and human rights concerns?

JOHNSON: Wray's friends and former colleagues say he's prepared to stand up for his values. He's the son and grandson of prominent lawyers in New York. And colleagues point out he was prepared to resign over a surveillance dispute during the Bush administration right along with James Comey, the man President Trump fired this year at the FBI, and Robert Mueller, the man now leading the special investigation into Russian election interference. His friend Andrew Hruska says Wray has reverence for the Justice Department. He won't violate his principles, Hruska says.

HRUSKA: If Chris felt that there was a reason to leave, I think he would leave unhesitatingly.

JOHNSON: Just one of the many questions the Senate Judiciary Committee will be asking Wray in his hearing this week. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.