FBI Confirmation Hearing Reopens Debate Over Surveillance

James Comey, the president's choice for FBI director, had a relatively easy time fielding questions Tuesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers wanted to know about surveillance, waterboarding and other controversial issues, but they posed their questions gently.

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On Capitol Hill, a hearing on the president's choice to lead the FBI has reopened the debate about how far the country should go to fight terrorism. James Comey is in line to become just the seventh director in FBI history. And today, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy expressed unease with the government's vast surveillance programs aimed at U.S. citizens.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: When is enough enough? Just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data doesn't mean that we should be doing it.

CORNISH: As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, Comey had an easy time with those questions.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A lot of controversial things came across Jim Comey's desk when he served as the deputy U.S. attorney general during the George W. Bush years, and lawmakers asked ever so gently about many of them today, starting with this question from Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

LEAHY: Do you agree that waterboarding is torture and is illegal?

JAMES COMEY JR.: Yes.

JOHNSON: Other Democrats on the panel reminded Comey he had signed off on a memo that determined waterboarding, or simulated drowning of terrorism suspects, did not run afoul of a U.S. anti-torture law. Comey replied there was an even more important consideration back then.

COMEY: I thought most important of all was this question about regardless of whether the CIA says it's effective, and regardless of whether the Office of Legal Counsel says it doesn't violate this particular 1994 statute, there's a critical third question, which is should we be doing this?

JOHNSON: Comey testified he went to his boss with concerns.

COMEY: But I went to the attorney general and said, this is wrong. This is awful. You have to go to the White House and force them to stare at this and answer that question.

JOHNSON: Ultimately, he said, he was overruled, but that wasn't always the case. Comey famously stood up to the Bush White House over a secret surveillance program and later told the Senate about it, as Democrat Charles Schumer from New York remembered.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: Your testimony about this incident was one of the most courageous acts by a witness I have ever seen, and if another book were written about profiles in courage, this would certainly be a chapter.

JOHNSON: But civil liberties groups take a different view. They say Comey gave his blessing to several other dragnet data mining programs - programs that have continued in some form for years. Comey shied away from talking much about them because he said the details are classified.

One of the few tense moments inside the hearing room came when Comey refused to denounce force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Prison, something California Democrat Dianne Feinstein has called on the White House to stop.

COMEY: Obviously, if I were FBI director, I don't think it's an area that would be within my job scope, but I don't know more about what you're describing than what you're describing. I...

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, let me just say, it's within all of our job scopes to care about how the United States of America acts.

COMEY: I agree very much with that, senator.

JOHNSON: Later, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken asked why Comey supported indefinite detention for U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, who went nearly two years without seeing a lawyer. Comey didn't have much of an answer.

COMEY: It's a one-off, horrific case that was a very difficult one. So it's obviously not a settled area because I don't know that it's ever happened other than Padilla's case.

JOHNSON: For his part, Comey said he would do his best to fill one of the toughest roles in government and to fill the shoes of his retiring predecessor, Robert Mueller.

COMEY: I know that this will be a hard job. I'm sure that things will go wrong and I will make mistakes. What I pledge to you, though, is to follow Bob Mueller's example of staring hard at those mistakes, learning from those mistakes and getting better as a result of those mistakes.

JOHNSON: Comey also pledged to make cyber threats a top priority without forgetting about white-collar crime and street violence, just one of the many balancing acts he'll do if the full Senate confirms him to a 10-year term. A vote's expected later this month. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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