Comey FBI nomination will put spying in spotlight

Last week, the Obama administration anonymously leaked that James B. Comey would be its nominee to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Comey formerly served as an Assistant United States Attorney, the Deputy Attorney General, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Lockheed Martin, and General Counsel of the largest hedge fund in the world.

Mr. Comey's time as Deputy Attorney General has gained the most attention due to a dramatic 2004 incident where, as Acting Attorney General, he rushed to the bedside of a sedated John Ashcroft to refuse the renewal of the Bush Administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

When Bush began to go ahead with the program anyway, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Comey and Ashcroft all threatened to resign. However, after unknown changes were made in the spying program, the men withdrew their threats of resignation.

Put another way, Comey affirmatively approved warrantless wiretapping of Americans. At his confirmation hearing, Comey should explain exactly what changes were made to the program, and why he believed they were sufficient to allow warrantless spying on people in the United States.

Putting the issue into sharp focus, Comey's nomination will come on the heels of a recent leak of a court order that provides a window into the dragnet surveillance of Americans' telephone communications initiated by the FBI. As reported by the Guardian, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) order gives the National Security Agency (NSA) daily records of every phone call made by Verizon Business Customers. The revelation is just one piece of evidence pointing a much broader spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

In recent years, the FBI has not only been conducting widespread wiretaps but also targeting, surveilling and entrapping innocent Americans. Such odious tactics are ripe for review during the confirmation of a new FBI director. The current operating guidelines for the FBI allow the FBI to investigate people without any indication of wrongdoing, including the use of informants and physical surveillance. Congress should seize this opportunity to demand that law enforcement respect constitutional protections for speech and privacy.

Comey would come to the job with recent experience in the defense and hedge fund industries. As general counsel at Lockheed Martin, Comey provided advice for the biggest federal defense spending pit in recent history, the oft-delayed and much maligned Joint Strike Fighter project.

Senator Grassley, a leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee responsible for Comey's confirmation has also flagged Comey's financial industry work as a potential target:

[I]f he’s nominated, he would have to answer questions about his recent work in the hedge fund industry. The administration’s efforts to criminally prosecute Wall Street for its part in the economic downturn have been abysmal, and his agency would have to help build the case against some of his colleagues in this lucrative industry.

If and when James Comey comes before Congress, the American people deserve answers and full disclosure about his past role in warrantless spying. They can also use the opportunity to demand reform of a regime that allows for secret widespread monitoring of communications without suspicion, as well as individual targeting, monitoring and entrapment.

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