WASHINGTON -- James Comey, President Barack Obama's nominee to be FBI director, on Tuesday defended the National Security Agency's surveillance programs as a critical tool for counterterrorism, but said he would be open to more transparency about the secret court that oversees the government's collection operations.
"I'm not familiar with the details of the current programs," Mr. Comey said during a 2 1/2-hour Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. "Obviously, I haven't been cleared for anything like that. I do know that, as a general matter, that the collection of metadata and analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counterterrorism."
The collection of metadata -- which records the dates, times and location of phone calls -- has become controversial in light of disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about top-secret agency programs.
Mr. Comey, who appeared relaxed and well-versed in law enforcement issues, answered a wide range of questions about civilian drones, the Boston Marathon bombings, a variety of legal issues and his role in writing legal opinions that sanctioned interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration that have been condemned as torture.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked Mr. Comey whether he would support releasing declassified summaries of opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so the public can better understand the workings of the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance programs.
Mr. Comey replied that he thought that was largely a question for the director of national intelligence, but said he wanted to be a voice for greater transparency. "Transparency is a key value, especially when it helps the American people understand what the government is doing to try to keep them safe," he said. "But because I don't know what's in the opinions -- also I 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."
Mr. Comey also told the committee that he did not believe that the judges on the secret court are "rubber stamps" for the government -- an opinion shared by James Robertson, a former federal district judge who served on the secret court and spoke at a separate hearing Tuesday. But Mr. Robertson said the FISA court system is flawed because of its failure to allow legal adversaries to question the government's actions. "Anyone who has been a judge will tell you a judge needs to hear both sides of a case," he said during a hearing of the federal oversight board directed by Mr. Obama to scrutinize government spying.
The nomination of Mr. Comey, who was the deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, has received strong bipartisan support, and his confirmation is all but assured. But he has come under fire from civil liberties advocates for his role in signing off on some Bush-era "enhanced interrogation" techniques, such as waterboarding.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Mr. Comey on his role in approving interrogation methods. "Do you agree that waterboarding is torture and is illegal?" Mr. Leahy asked.
"Yes," Mr. Comey replied, "I said this is torture; it's still what I think. If I were FBI director, we would never have anything to do with that."
Mr. Comey said he tried to stop the techniques, but the law was "very vague," he said. "I thought it was irresponsible, both as a policy matter and as a legal matter, and so I objected to it and took that directly to the attorney general and made my case that was wrong. He disagreed with me and overruled me."
If confirmed, Mr. Comey would replace Robert Mueller, who is retiring in September after 12 years. Mr. Mueller who led the FBI through the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and the bureau's transformation to emphasize counter-terror investigations in the years afterward.