FBI nominee James Comey: Did he ace confirmation hearing?

James Comey, a Republican who served under George W. Bush, told the senators he considered waterboarding torture. The FBI nominee sailed through his confirmation hearing with bipartisan support.

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    FBI Director nominee James Comey is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 9, prior to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Comey spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor before serving in the George W. Bush administration, where he is best known for facing down the White House over a warrantless surveillance program.
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James Comey is no Chuck Hagel.

It’s true that both men are Republicans who are – or, in Comey’s case, soon will be – serving in high Obama administration posts.

But ex-Senator Hagel struggled through his Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of Defense earlier this year, appearing ill-prepared to answer tough questions he must have known were coming. In contrast, Mr. Comey, Obama’s pick to be the next director of the FBI, sailed through his Senate hearing test Tuesday like an America’s Cup yacht with following winds.

It was clear from the start that Comey’s day would be relatively easy. Sen. Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont, the Judiciary Committtee chairman, has long pushed for the harsh interrogation practice known as waterboarding to be considered torture. Comey, as an official in the George W. Bush administration, objected strongly to the practice.

So Senator Leahy started off with the question on which he knew he and Comey would agree: Is waterboarding torture?

“Yes,” said Comey, flatly.

“Would you agree to answer this question the same way no matter who was president?” Leahy continued.

“Oh certainly,” said Comey.

Following that, other senators of both parties praised Comey’s independence, referring several times to his role in facing down the Bush White House over a warrantless surveillance program.

Comey, meanwhile, agreed in principle with many senators on particular questions, while avoiding committing himself to policy details.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, for instance, asked him what he thought about the force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Comey replied that “I frankly wouldn’t want [that] done to me,” but noted that that FBI isn’t in charge of Guantanamo and so the question was outside his scope.

“I don’t think it’d be worth much, my opinion, at this point,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas asked Comey whether he was concerned that in the Benghazi, Libya attack and the Boston Marathon bombing the FBI had failed to connect dots of evidence beforehand that might have enabled the US to thwart the plots.

“I don’t know enough from this vantage point, senator, to comment on the particular cases. Obviously I think it’s always important to connect the dots as best you can,” said Comey.

Comey used the word “transparency” often, saying he saw it as a key value for the FBI, particularly when dealing with Congress. But he also to some extent defended the US government’s collection of vast amounts of its citizens’ telephone metadata via National Security Agency snooping.

“As a general matter … the collection of metadata and analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counterterrorism,” Comey said.

He also held that the secret court that authorizes NSA surveillance activities is not a “rubber stamp,” as some critics charge.

“Folks don’t realize it is a group of independent federal judges who sit and review requests by the government, who gather information, and it is anything but a rubber stamp,” he said.

Comey was a federal prosecutor for 15 years prior to becoming an appointed official in the Bush administration, rising to the office of deputy attorney general. After leaving government he became general counsel at Lockheed Martin. Later he moved to the same position at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.

As was definitely not the case with Chuck Hagel, Comey seems assured of confirmation in his new post.

“I’d be surprised “if confirmation is not unanimous, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah told the FBI nominee.


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