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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Robert Mueller has been FBI director since before the 9/11 attacks. First, under Republican President Bush, then under Democratic President Obama, he's been a central figure on national security. But his term has long since expired. The clock is ticking on an unprecedented extension that Congress gave Mueller a couple of years ago. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on who his successor could be.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The first time the Obama White House thought about a replacement for FBI Director Robert Mueller back in 2011, officials threw up their hands and wound up begging him to stay. Congress passed a special law that gave Mueller a two-year extension. Then Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, of Iowa, put his foot down.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Extending a director's term was not a fly-by-night decision. It also puts the president on notice to begin the process of selecting and nominating a new FBI director earlier than the last attempt.

JOHNSON: Behind the scenes, that process is well under way. The FBI director serves a 10-year term, designed to give that person insulation from partisan politics. But whomever President Obama chooses could become a big part of his legacy. The administration approached D.C. Federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, who said he didn't want the job, which leaves some serious candidates still on the short list.

One is Lisa Monaco. She's a career federal prosecutor who once served as Mueller's FBI chief of staff. Monaco developed close partnerships with the intelligence community when she ran the Justice Department's National Security Division, or NSD.

LISA MONACO: Our goal in NSD is to serve as practical problem-solvers on operational, legal and policy questions that we confront alongside our partners, and also, above all, our goal is to keep pace with an evolving threat.

JOHNSON: Monaco told the American Bar Association this year she's focused on other threats, too.

MONACO: The pervasiveness of cybertechnologies, and the rate at which they change, increases our vulnerability to attack.

JOHNSON: Monaco recently moved over to the White House, to be President Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. She'd be the first woman to be FBI director - no small thing for a president who's trying to diversify his Cabinet. A second serious candidate is Jim Comey. He's the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where he brought this case over lying about stock trades.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Stunned by her criminal conviction, a stoic Martha Stewart swept out of the federal courthouse.

JOHNSON: Comey, a Republican, went on to become second-in-command at the Justice Department during the Bush administration. Two years after Comey left the department in 2005, he told the Senate about his threat to resign over a program that involved warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

JIM COMEY: I couldn't stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis. I just simply couldn't stay.

JOHNSON: Back then, Comey worked closely with FBI Director Mueller, and sought his help when Bush White House officials showed up at the hospital bed of Attorney General John Ashcroft to try to get him to overrule Comey.

COMEY: I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I'd just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general, because they had been transferred to me.

JOHNSON: That episode nine years ago did not endear Comey to some Republicans in Congress. But whichever way it goes in the next few weeks, the White House is betting that lawmakers won't play politics with a nomination as crucial as the FBI director. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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