The U.S. Senate confirmed James B. Comey Jr. to be the next director of the FBI, giving the agency its first new head since before the September 2001 attacks.
Comey, the former No. 2 official in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, was confirmed yesterday 93-1. Once sworn in, he will take over for Robert Mueller, who has led the agency since days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. President Barack Obama praised the Senate vote, calling Comey “a natural leader of unquestioned integrity.”
“In the face of ever-changing threats, he has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to defending America’s security and ideals,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. “The FBI will be in good hands long after I’ve left office.”
Comey, 52, will lead a law enforcement agency that has been changing to address increased threats posed by computer hackers and domestic terrorism, amid heightened public concerns over the reach and scope of classified surveillance programs disclosed by a former intelligence contractor.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, had said he would hold up the nomination until he received answers from the FBI about the agency’s domestic use of unmanned aerial vehicles. He voted against Comey’s confirmation.
The agency, in a response yesterday to Paul, said in a letter that it didn’t require a warrant to use the drones to conduct surveillance on specific investigations.
Paul said in a statement that while he disagreed with the FBI’s interpretation, he would release the hold on Comey.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in an initial response to Paul’s questions from its congressional affairs office, said it has used the vehicles to conduct surveillance in eight criminal cases and two national-security cases.
The drones aren’t armed and aren’t used to conduct general surveillance, Stephen D. Kelly, the assistant director for congressional affairs, said in a July 19 letter to Paul.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said Comey gave him assurances that he’d review policies that guide the FBI’s use of domestic drones.
Paul is among the lawmakers who have expressed concern about expanding government surveillance. Two programs, one that collects domestic telephone records and another that targets the Internet use of foreigners suspected of having ties to terrorism, were disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who’s holed up in a Moscow airport amid U.S. efforts to secure his return to face prosecution.
Comey said during his confirmation hearing that while he wasn’t aware of the details of the current programs, he found bulk collection of data -- a method used by the National Security Agency to gather the phone records of millions of Americans -- a “valuable tool.”
The legality of surveillance programs became a central tenet of Comey’s legacy in the Bush administration, with his refusal in a dramatic hospital-room confrontation to re-authorize one of the data gathering practices utilized at the time amid pressure from top administration officials.
Comey and Mueller, the man he will replace atop the FBI, had both considered resigning without changes to the programs. Those changes, which are still classified, were made.
“We need strong, principled, ethical leaders who steadfastly adhere to the law,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said yesterday on the Senate floor before the vote. “I’m confident that James Comey is such a leader.”
Mueller, the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover, will leave the position on September 4. His 10-year term was extended by Congress for two years at Obama’s request.
Mueller has overseen a shift in the FBI’s responsibilities and focus during his time as director, mostly driven by the criticism of the agency’s failures in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The national-security focus has increased the agency’s emphasis on counterterrorism and intelligence collection, while maintaining its traditional criminal investigative functions.
Mueller, during testimony before a Senate panel in May, said the U.S. remains “in a time of acute and persistent threats to our national security, economy, and community safety from terrorists, foreign adversaries, criminals and violent gangs, and cyber attackers.”
Comey, who left government service in 2005, will join the FBI after private-sector jobs that included serving as general counsel to Lockheed Martin Corp. and to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates LP. Most recently he was nonexecutive director on the board of London-based bank HSBC Holdings Plc.