President Barack Obama’s nominee to run the Federal Bureau of Investigation said waterboarding is a form of torture and illegal, and defended the government's collection of surveillance data to thwart suspected terrorists.
"When I first learned about waterboarding when I became deputy attorney general, my reaction as a citizen and a leader was, 'This is torture,'" James Comey said. "It's still what I think ... and if I were FBI director, it would never have anything to do with that."
His remarks came during an almost three-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which met today on Capitol Hill to consider Comey's nomination to succeed Robert Mueller as director of the FBI for a decade-long term.
Comey from 2003 to 2005 was deputy attorney general at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration. In 2004, he urged then-Attorney General John Ashcroft not to renew the government’s domestic surveillance program.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee, asked Comey how his comments on torture reconciled with his 2005 approval of harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
"Maybe the most important thing I did on this topic as deputy attorney general was force -- try to force -- and fight for a discussion about whether this was the kind of thing we ought to be doing as Americans," he said.
"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.' I believe the answer is we should not be involved in this kind of stuff," he said. "I made that argument as forcefully as I could."
Comey also shared his thoughts on the nature of National Security Agency surveillance programs disclosed by former Pentagon contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in a Moscow airport after fleeing the U.S. and Taiwan.
Snowden is wanted by the U.S. after leaking information about classified NSA programs known as PRISM and Upstream, which allow officials to capture e-mails and other digital information on potential threats from tech companies such as Google Inc. and fiber-optic cable networks.
"I'm not familiar with the details of the current programs," Comey said. "I do know that as a general matter, the collection of metadata and the analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counter-terrorism," he said, referring to information about data, such as the time and date of telephone calls and e-mails.
Comey pledged to work with Leahy to enact what the senator described as "common sense" improvements to the country's surveillance laws.
The senator last month introduced a bill called the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013 to curb the government’s ability to spy on Americans under amended provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2008.
"Just because we can do it doesn't mean we should," Leahy said.
Comey said the FBI "has to be both an intelligence agency and a crime-fighting agency" and defended the FISA court -- a group of independent judges who review government surveillance requests -- as "anything but a rubber stamp."
In response to a question from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, Comey cited as would-be priorities over the next decade "to continue the transformation of the FBI into an intelligence agency" and to combat cyber-related crimes, which he described as "an enormous and exponentially growing threat."
The committee next week may vote on his nomination.