James Comey, President Obama's nominee to serve as the next FBI director, promised Congress on Tuesday to "continue transformation of the FBI into an intelligence agency," while promising not to lose sight of the agency's crime-fighting mission or of civil liberties concerns.
"The FBI has to be both, an intelligence agency and crime fighting agency," Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I believe it's very important for the next director to continue transformation of the FBI into an intelligence agency. To continue that cultural change... The cyber threat, both cyber-espionage, cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, is an enormous and an exponentially growing threat and so will certainly be a key part of the next 10 years."
Comey, 52, has won accolades from both Democrats and Republicans for his service as deputy attorney general under former President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005. In that capacity, Comey objected to the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program and initially refused to reauthorize it. When he and outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller threatened to resign as a result of the program, Bush revised it.
Referencing a dramatic confrontation over the surveillance program at the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told Comey, "If another book were written about profiles in courage, this would be another chapter."
Comey's nomination comes as the Obama administration is facing criticism over leaked information about sweeping National Security Administration surveillance and data collection programs.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, asked Comey if the bulk collection of metadata from domestic telephone calls or emails is appropriate.
Comey noted that he has been out of government for eight years and is not familiar with the details of the current programs.
"I do know as a general matter that the collection of metadata and analysis of metadata is a valuable tool in counterterrorism," he said.
Schumer asked Comey whether he would support declassifying or releasing declassified summaries of opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) regarding the current programs "to make sure that we strike the right balance as a society" between security and transparency.
Comey said he couldn't answer at this point, given the limited information he has, but added, "I agree with you that transparency is a critical value, especially when weighing tradeoffs between security and liberty."
He earlier said in his testimony that the FISC is "anything but a rubber stamp."
Comey also faced questions about waterboarding, in light of the fact that as deputy attorney general, he raised concerns about the practice but later gave his legal approval. He insisted Monday that he considers it torture.
"When I first learned about waterboarding when I became deputy attorney general, my reaction as a citizen and a leader was 'this is torture,'" he said. "It's still what I think."
When it came to legally interpreting, the practice, however, Comey said, "I discovered that it's actually a much harder question."