James B. Comey Jr., a former George W. Bush administration official and now President Obama’s nominee for FBI director, defended the approval by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of surveillance programs and dismissed arguments that the court was a “rubber stamp.”
“Anyone who knows federal judges and has appeared before federal judges knows that calling them a rubber stamp shows you don’t have experience,” Mr. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. He said the court did not operate in a vacuum and was subject to checks and balances.
“That combination of judicial involvement, congressional oversight, [inspector general] oversight, results in a very effective regime,” he said, but promised to work with Congress to improve laws related to the government’s surveillance activities.
Mr. Comey, 52, who served as deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, said he was not familiar with the specific details of the government’s recently publicized telephone and Internet surveillance programs — having been out of government for the past eight years — but thought the collection of that type of information could be a “valuable tool” in combatting terrorist threats.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected terrorists in the U.S.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman, said the next director of the FBI “must face the challenge of how to sustain the FBI’s increased focus on counterterrorism while upholding the FBI’s commitment to its historic law enforcement functions.”
With his confirmation seemingly a sure thing, Mr. Comey also said:
• He lacked personal experience with the issue of using drones as surveillance tools against U.S. citizens, but he was aware of the concerns involved. He also mentioned viewing a recent video in which a drone was fitted with a weapon, adding that, “It’s certainly something that lies in our future, if not our present.”
• He argued strongly with the Justice Department against abusive CIA interrogation techniques, including “waterboarding,” for terrorism suspects, insisting the methods being used were “wrong” and “awful,” but his concerns were overruled.
• He gave his assurance he would not retaliate against FBI whistleblowers and work with them to address their concerns. He said whistleblowers were a critical element of a functioning democracy.
The whistleblower issue was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the committee, who authored many of the country’s whistleblower laws. He said the FBI has a “poor history of retaliating against whistleblowers who come forward and report wrongdoing.
“This is particularly concerning in light of the recent leak of classified information,” Mr. Grassley said. “While not necessarily an FBI matter, the recent leaks have highlighted an issue I have focused on for years, whistleblower protections for national security employees. National security employees, including many assigned at the FBI, need a protected mechanism to report wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.”
Mr. Comey is best remembered for his role in a hospital confrontation in 2004 involving Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, during which White House Chief Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, sought Mr. Ashcroft’s signature on the reauthorization of a warrantless domestic spy program.
Mr. Ashcroft, who had developed pancreatitis and was in intensive care, refused to sign and then pointed at Mr. Comey, who was in the room, and said Mr. Comey was the attorney general. Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card then left the room.