FBI Nominee Comey Calls Bush-Era Waterboarding ‘Torture’

James B. Comey, the nominee to be the next FBI director, said interrogation methods such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation used during his time in President George W. Bush’s administration constitute torture and are illegal.

Responding to lawmakers at his nomination hearing today, Comey repeatedly denounced waterboarding as something the U.S. government shouldn’t do. He said he pushed for changes while he was at the Justice Department in the Bush administration.

“When I first learned about waterboarding, my reaction as a citizen and a leader is this is torture,” Comey told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It’s still what I think.”

Senators today had their first chance to publicly question Comey since President Barack Obama nominated him on June 21 to a 10-year term as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts, including interrogation techniques and intelligence-gathering programs, were the primary topic -- two issues Comey was involved with while he was deputy attorney general in the Justice Department.

Comey said that while he didn’t know the details of the classified intelligence-gathering computer programs used by the government today, bulk collection of data is a “valuable tool” for the government’s efforts to stop terrorism threats.

Sensitive Post

If confirmed, Comey would take over the agency at a time when officials are reviewing a renewed terrorism threat after the Boston Marathon bombings, questions about the depth of investigations into journalists, and leaks about confidential government operations.

“I’m sure things will go wrong and I will make mistakes,” he said during his opening statement. Still, he said, the ability to acknowledge and correct those mistakes is crucial to the FBI’s success.

Comey, 52, would replace Robert Mueller, who is retiring in September. Mueller has been FBI director since 2001.

“The next director must face the challenge of how to sustain the FBI’s increased focus on counterterrorism while upholding the FBI’s commitment to its historic law-enforcement functions,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Data Collection

Leahy also expressed concern over the scope of the intelligence-collection activities that have been disclosed by former government contractor Edward Snowden -- programs the FBI uses in its efforts to counter terrorist plots.

“When the government is collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, when is enough enough?” Leahy said. “Just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data doesn’t mean that we should be doing so.”

Comey’s nomination has drawn the support of major law-enforcement organizations around the country, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the FBI Agents Association and the National Association of Police Organizations. Former top Justice Department officials and U.S. attorneys, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have also signed letters supporting the nomination.

Obama, when he introduced Comey last month at the White House, cited his “fierce independence and his deep integrity” as among the primary reasons for his selection.

Bush Administration

Still, Comey’s nomination has brought back to the forefront questions about the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism programs and tactics. In his role as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, Comey had oversight of the legal justification used to authorize some of those programs.

A coalition of civil liberties and human rights advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to lawmakers on July 1 that called on the Judiciary panel to “determine the full extent of Mr. Comey’s role in the approval and use of torture before voting on whether to confirm him.”

Two days later, Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Richard Durbin of Illinois sent a letter to Comey requesting details on his role in the Bush Justice Department’s authorization of harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.

Comey said today that, in addition to believing that waterboarding was torture, he had concerns with the use of sleep deprivation in terrorism interrogations. He called its use, in aggregate with other techniques “very problematic” from a legal perspective. He said he pushed for the administration to take another look at its policy of using waterboarding during interrogations of terrorism suspects.

Bridgewater Payout

After he left the government in 2005, Comey was general counsel at defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and then hedge fund Bridgewater Associates LP. Most recently he was appointed to the board of London-based bank HSBC Holdings Plc as a nonexecutive director.

Comey will take a payout of $3.07 million from Bridgewater if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Comey, who left his position at Bridgewater in January, would receive the money as a “full payout” of his interests in the company’s profit-sharing plan, according to a questionnaire filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Should he be confirmed, the money would be paid “prior to the date that I assume the position” as FBI director, according to the 32-page questionnaire, signed by Comey and dated June 26.

Comey told lawmakers he would recuse himself from any matters dealing with his former employers.

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