On July 9 the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved James Comey’s nomination for FBI Director. While there were many issues on the table, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s attention focused on his opposition to warrantless wiretapping under the Bush administration. The power of that moment in the minds of committee members seemed to overpower his track record on torture. Amongst the controversial issues surrounding Comey's nomination, NSA surveillance has become one of the top concerns.
In case you have forgotten, the extent of this surveillance allows for the collection of “the numbers of both parties on a call, location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls.”
How this relates to the FBI is clear: it was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) who granted this court order to the FBI on April 25, 2013. Whoever becomes the new top law enforcement officer of the United States will be in charge of this data collection. Comey, who in the past has disproved and questioned the legality of the PATRIOT Act’s warrantless wiretaps, may become the person in charge of collecting massive amounts of warrantless phone data.
When Comey was asked about NSA surveillance, he said that, “gathering metadata is a valuable counterterrorism tool but that he doesn't know the details of the current programs.” It is clear that the importance of who is appointed as the top law enforcement official in the United States is directly linked with NSA surveillance.
When further questioned about the legality of NSA mass surveillance he said, it “presented an interesting question and that, if confirmed, he would ask the Department of Justice to look into it.” Sound familiar? It should. When Comey was confronted about waterboarding, he dealt with the issue exactly the same way.
Recently Comey has attested that waterboarding is a form of torture. He has even gone so far to say, "When I first learned about waterboarding...my reaction was this is torture; it's still what I think. If I were FBI director, we would never have anything to do with that." Yet while he was in office “he concurred in OLC's (Office of Legal Counsel) legal judgment that waterboarding, lengthy sleep deprivation, and other abusive techniques did not constitute torture and did not violate U.S. law."
A coalition of human rights groups addressed this in a letter to Senators Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley. This human rights coalition’s warnings seem to have gone unnoticed even with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. If Comey is appointed as FBI Director, will he purport to have strong negative opinions about mass surveillance, all the while say that it is good law to be enforced? In the past he has been a force to reckon with in regards to warrantless searches but his response in this situation does not instill much confidence in the American people.
According to NPR reporter Carry Johnson, Comey’s nomination may “provide a rare opportunity for some answers" regarding surveillance in the US. This revelation comes on the skirts of Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) threat to hold up the nomination until the FBI answers questions about drone usage in America. What this means for stopping the vastly extended surveillance law is unsure, but whoever claims the appointment of FBI Director may make or break NSA surveillance in America.