FBI nominee James Comey may be a hero to Democrats for his dramatic, late-night stand against warrantless wiretapping in 2004, but that didn't stop senators from pressing him today on national security policies.
Comey, nominated as the next FBI director by President Obama in May, appeared Tuesday for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
With the Obama administration's national security policies under scrutiny by Congress and under fire from civil libertarians, committee members sought answers from Comey on his views on NSA email collection, FISA-court transparency, IRS political targeting, indefinite detention and force-feeding at Guantanamo.
And they zeroed in on an aspect of his record that civil libertarians are far less enamored of than his stand against warrantless wiretapping: his approval of enhanced-interrogation techniques as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush.
While those policies are contentious, the hearing wasn't.
Comey enjoys star status among congressional Democrats for standing up to then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales -- a chief Bush-era villain, in the eyes of liberals -- as Gonzales and then White House chief of staff Andrew Card went to attorney general John Ashcroft's hospital sickbed to seek approval for warrantless wiretapping.
In 2007, Comey gave an account of that episode before Congress.
"Your testimony was one of the most dramatic and brave moments that I've ever witnessed in my years as a legislator," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told Comey today.
Democrats were less enthused about NSA email metadata collection, a policy Comey defended today. Although he did add that he's not familiar with the details of the program because, having been out of government for the last eight years, he lacks a security clearance.
"I do know as a general matter that the collection of metadata and analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counterterrorism," Comey told Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leady, D-Vt.
Perhaps the main point of criticism leveled at Comey by civil libertarians is his approval of Office of Legal Counsel memos authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. The ACLU had called on senators to question Comey's decision to do so. And they did.
"When I first learned about waterboarding when I became deputy attorney general, my reaction as a citizen and a leader was, this is torture," Comey told Leahy, who asked about it in the first question of the hearing.
"It's still what I think. And to his great credit, Bob Mueller made sure the FBI had nothing to do with that business. And if I were FBI director, it would never have anything to do with that," Comey said.
Comey said he fought enhanced interrogations internally, within the Bush administration, during his tenure as deputy attorney general but was overruled by his bosses and higher-ups on the Bush national security team. As for his approval of OLC memos okaying the practices, Comey said he found it difficult to disprove their legality, despite personally finding them reprehensible.
"What I discovered when I became deputy attorney general is that even though I as a person, as a father, as a leader thought, 'That's torture, we shouldn't be doing that kind of thing,' I discovered that it's actually a much harder question to interpret this 1994 [anti-torture] statute," Comey said.
"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, and is it appropriate as Americans?" Comey told Leahy. Comey said he pushed the Bush administration to have that discussion.
Multiple Democratic senators pressed Comey on another controversial Obama administration practice, the force-feeding of Guantanamo Bay detainees on hunger strike.
"Obviously, if I were FBI director, I don't think it's an area that would be within my job scope," Comey told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"It's within all of our job scopes to care about how the United States of America acts," Feinstein interjected.
"What you're describing I, frankly, wouldn't want done to me, but I don't know the circumstances well enough to offer you an opinion," Comey told Feinstein, after she described the practice of binding detainees' feet and hands while inserting a feeding tube into their noses.
A frequent request heard today was that the FBI declassify, or share already declassified, FISA court opinions to lend greater transparency to U.S. surveillance practices.
Again citing his lack of familiarity with specifics, Comey did not commit to doing so but said he's open to the idea.
"I don't know what's in the opinions; I also don't know what's on the other side in terms of concerns about classified information. It's hard for me to say at this point. I think it is a worthy exercise to look closely at it, though," he told Schumer.
While most of the hearing saw grievances aired and questions asked about national security policies, renowned tea partier Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Comey on the investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing at the IRS in its targeting of tea party groups for extra scrutiny.
"It should be a very high priority," Comey said.