CAPITOL HILL —
President Barack Obama’s nominee to be America’s next FBI director says the interrogation technique known as “waterboarding” is torture and therefore illegal. Former assistant attorney general James Comey faced intense questioning on law enforcement and national security matters during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Comey is known for having taken part in a heated debate over waterboarding that divided the former Bush administration in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Waterboarding simulates drowning and causes extreme panic and duress. It was employed for a time to interrogate terror suspects held by the CIA. In 2004, Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller rushed to the bedside of then-hospitalized former Attorney General John Ashcroft to argue against the continued use of waterboarding.
If confirmed, Comey would succeed Mueller as the U.S. government’s "top cop." He told the Senate Judiciary Committee his views on waterboarding have not changed.
“When I first learned about waterboarding, my reaction as a citizen and a leader was: This is torture. It is still what I think,” he said.
Later, however, Comey agreed with a Bush administration legal finding that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are lawful. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy sought to clear up the matter.
“Do you agree that waterboarding is torture and illegal?” asked Leahy.
“Yes,” replied Comey.
Comey said the FBI has never conducted waterboarding, and would not do so if he were confirmed as director.
Comey also was asked about the federal government’s extensive domestic data collection abilities, and concerns that have been raised about Americans’ right to privacy.
Once again, Leahy led the questioning.
“When government is collecting data on millions of totally innocent Americans on a daily basis, when is enough enough?”
Comey did not address the domestic surveillance revelations leaked by fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. But he spoke about the need for data collection in general.
“I am not familiar with the details of the current programs. Obviously I have not been cleared for anything like that, and I have been out of government for eight years. I do know as a general matter that the collection of metadata and the analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counterterrorism,” said Comey.
Comey also defended the independence and integrity of special judicial bodies, known as FISA courts, that approve wiretapping and other surveillance operations against suspected foreign agents, including terror suspects. When asked if drones may be used to kill U.S. citizens on American soil, he said “no.”
If confirmed by the full Senate, Comey would serve a 10-year term as FBI director.