James Comey, President Obama’s nominee to be director of the FBI, 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,’’ Comey said Tuesday during a 2½-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. ‘‘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.
Comey, who appeared relaxed and well-versed in law enforcement issues, answered a wide range of questions about civilian drones, the Boston Marathon bombings, 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.
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, asked Comey whether he would support releasing declassified summaries of opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that the public can better understand the workings of the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance programs.
Comey replied he thought that was largely a question for the director of national intelligence but said that 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,’’ Comey said.
Comey also told the committee he did not believe the judges on the secret court are ‘‘rubber stamps’’ for the government — an opinion that is shared by James Robertson, a former federal district judge who served on the secret court and spoke at a separate hearing Tuesday.
The nomination of Comey, who was the deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, has received strong bipartisan support, and his confirmation is all but assured.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, pressed Comey on his role in approving some Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding.
‘‘Do you agree that waterboarding is torture and is illegal?’’ Leahy asked.
‘‘Yes,’’ 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.”
Comey said he tried to stop the techniques, but that the law was ‘‘very vague.’’
‘‘I objected to it and took that directly to the attorney general and made my case that [it] was wrong. He disagreed with me and overruled me.’’
If confirmed, Comey would replace Robert Mueller, who is retiring in September after 12 years and who led the FBI through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the transformation of the Bureau in the years afterward.
In his opening statement, Comey said that when he was first approached about the job this year, his wife, Patrice, gave him two reasons to say yes.
‘‘She said, ‘This is who you are. You’ve always been happiest when you’re in government service. This is what you love.’ And second, ‘They’re not going to pick you, anyway.’’’
But on June 21, Obama nominated Comey to head the Bureau, saying the former prosecutor and senior Justice Department official has ‘‘law enforcement in his blood.’’ Obama praised his independence, integrity, and dedication.
With his wife and five children seated behind him, Comey acknowledged how tough the FBI director job is and said mistakes are inevitable.
‘‘I’m sure that things will go wrong and I will make mistakes,’’ Comey said. ‘‘What I pledge to you, though, is to follow Bob Mueller’s example of staring hard at those mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and getting better as a result of those mistakes.’’