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Comey moves gingerly toward Senate confirmation

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 1:56 PM EDT, Tue July 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Comey faces a Senate hearing on his nomination to be FBI director
  • If approved as expected, Comey will get a 10-year term to succeed Robert Mueller
  • Comey masters the art of agreeing with questioners without committing to specifics
  • The former deputy attorney general is praised for opposing Bush-era surveillance

Washington (CNN) -- His confirmation as the new FBI director seemingly secure, James Comey gave a master class Tuesday on agreeing with his Senate questioners while mostly avoiding firm commitments on pressing issues of national security and law enforcement that he will face.

Time after time, Comey responded to Senate Judiciary Committee members by saying he lacked sufficient information to offer a detailed answer.

He repeatedly said he agreed with specific views or positions declared by senators on sensitive issues such as water-boarding and government surveillance programs, but also made it clear that he was unable to state how he would handle any specific case or situation before he actually faced it.

"I know this will be a hard job," said the 52-year-old Comey, a former deputy attorney general in the Bush administration who also spent recent years in the private sector. "I'm sure that things will go wrong and I will make mistakes."

President Barack Obama nominated Comey for the 10-year term to succeed Robert Mueller as head of the FBI, and both Republicans and Democrats indicated Tuesday he would easily win Senate approval.

Comey pledged to lead an independent FBI, free of association from any party or political ideology, and he followed the lead of senators who asked him about high-profile issues, agreeing for example that water-boarding is torture and not "the type of thing we ought to be doing as Americans."

At one point, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California read a disturbing description of how detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay get force-fed through tubes inserted in their noses. She said the practice should be stopped and asked Comey to comment.

"What you're describing, I frankly wouldn't want done to me," he said, but added that he didn't know enough about the situation to offer an opinion.

Other Democrats praised Comey for his well-publicized opposition to domestic surveillance programs of the Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A bedside showdown with White House officials in 2004, in which Comey helped convince the hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to refuse to extend the Bush-era programs without modification, was praised by panel members on Tuesday.

However, when asked by committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, about the recent disclosure of classified details on how the government collects domestic phone records for possible court-approved investigation, Comey avoided a direct answer.

"I'm not familiar with the details of the current programs," he said. "Obviously, I haven't been cleared for anything like that, and I've been out of government for eight years. I do know as a general matter that the collection of metadata and analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counter-terrorism."

Later, Comey said his understanding of the safeguards in the program, including special federal courts that must approve investigations of the phone metadata, "sounded reasonable to me, but I don't know all the information."

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