James Comey, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that whistle-blowers are necessary in a democracy during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Asked by Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, whether he would protect and work with whistleblowers within the FBI, Comey said that “whistle-blowers are also a critical element of a functioning democracy. Folks have to feel free to raise their concerns, and if they are not addressed up their chain-of-command, to take them to an appropriate place.”
Comey did not expand on what “an appropriate place” might look like, nor did he comment on the situation of NSA whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden. He did call retaliation against whistle-blowers “unacceptable” and said he would prioritize government transparency as a “key value.”
Senators grilled Comey on a number of issues during the three-hour hearing, many unconnected to the FBI, such as the force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, whether water-boarding is torture, and the NSA’s warrantless collection of Americans’ communication metadata.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy brought up water-boarding in his opening remarks, and Comey agreed with the Vermont Democrat’s assertion that America should never have engaged in water-boarding.
“My reaction as a citizen and a leader was that this is torture. It’s still what I think,” Comey said, adding, “This is wrong. This is awful.”
Senators from both parties praised Comey’s record of service as Deputy Attorney General from 2003 to 2005, and before that, as Attorney General of the Southern District of New York. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said he expected Mr. Comey would be confirmed unanimously by the Senate for the position.
Despite his comments on the necessity of whistle-blowing, Comey refused to condemn the NSA programs that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on, calling the warrantless collection of metadata “a valuable tool in counter-terrorism.” He also dismissed notions that the secret FISA court in charge of reviewing government surveillance practices was not rigorous, calling federal judges “anything but a rubber stamp.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California raised the issue of force-feeding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 86 of whom have been cleared for transfer out of Cuba, saying that a recent trip to the prison had convinced her that “It’s within all of our job scopes to care about how America acts,” and thus that Comey should be concerned even if uninvolved in running the prison.
In his response Comey declined to offer an opinion on force-feeding, saying that the issue was outside of the realm of the FBI’s responsibilities and thus that “I don’t think my opinion would be worth very much at this point.”