FBI Pick Rekindles Debate On Post-9/11 Security Measures

Word that the White House plans to nominate former Justice Department official James Comey to lead the FBI has rekindled a debate about the balance between security and liberty. Comey, a Republican, served in the George W. Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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The president's apparent choice for a new FBI director is rekindling a smoldering debate in Washington. It's about the balance between security and liberty.

James Comey is a Republican. He served in the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks when harsh detainee interrogations and surveillance policies first sparked controversy. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Jim Comey casts a long shadow in the law enforcement community, and not just because he is 6 foot, 8 inches tall. Comey burst onto the public stage with riveting Senate testimony about how he stood up to the Bush White House after officials there pressed him to approve a secret surveillance program.

Comey was in charge that night, back in 2004, because Attorney General John Ashcroft was in a Washington hospital bed. I asked Ashcroft today about Comey's backbone.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN ASHCROFT: I suppose there are fewer questions about his independence than about anything else. He is a person who is independent from partisan politics, he is independent from personal politics, but not independent from principles or the Constitution and the rule of law.

JOHNSON: But some people in the civil liberties community view the selection of Comey with a lot less comfort.

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Recycling Bush administration officials is just not a good formula for the protection of civil liberties.

JOHNSON: Shayana Kadidal works at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

KADIDAL: There are plenty of questions for Comey on all the major issues: torture, rendition and warrantless wiretapping.

JOHNSON: Even though Comey expressed doubts about some harsh interrogation tactics, Kadidal says, he cited state secrets to bar the courthouse doors to a man who said he was a torture victim.

Michael German is a former FBI agent. These days, German works on national security policy at the American Civil Liberties Union. German says Comey deserves credit for standing up to the worst excesses in the Bush years. But he worries about the direction of the FBI and the over collection of information on innocent people caught up in huge databases.

MICHAEL GERMAN: Because there are so many people on these watch lists, they're no longer effective. The people using them come to realize that the list doesn't really mean anything so when somebody is pinged against the list, we don't see the type of response we would expect if that list was really narrowly focused on a number of suspects, there was actually evidence to believe they were doing something wrong.

JOHNSON: Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney, says his longtime friend Jim Comey struggles with that balance.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: Jim Comey, above anyone else, gets those issues and understands the tensions that are there and thinks about them a lot. And I think that if people have concerns, they'll see someone who's very thoughtful and, you know, gets the importance of not having people killed and gets the importance of having people safe and secure in their civil liberties.

JOHNSON: Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley has raised a different kind of question for Comey. Will a man who gave legal advice to Lockheed Martin and a huge hedge fund be tough enough on Wall Street? In the Bush Justice Department, Comey prosecuted housewares maven Martha Stewart and WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers. Here's what his friend Pat Fitzgerald has to say.

FITZGERALD: If I was out committing corporate fraud, I would not view the appointment of Jim Comey as the FBI director as a good day.

JOHNSON: President Obama is expected to formally nominate Comey within the next several days. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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