Comey: Waterboarding is torture, illegal

President Obama’s nominee for FBI director on Tuesday said waterboarding is torture and illegal, and told lawmakers he fought to block the practice while serving in the George W. Bush administration.

James Comey’s criticism of waterboarding came during a wide-ranging hearing that covered the forced feeding of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison, the National Security Agency's controversial data-mining programs and whether civilian courts should be used to try terrorists. 

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But the issue at the top of the agenda was the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were in use when Comey was a member of Bush’s Justice Department.

Asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) whether waterboarding was illegal, Comey answered directly, “Yes.”

"When I first learned about waterboarding, when I became deputy attorney general, my reaction as a citizen and a leader was: This is torture. It's still what I think," said Comey.

His answers seemed to overwhelmingly satisfy lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, clearing the way for what is likely to be a smooth vote in his favor before the full Senate.

Comey vowed he would always reject waterboarding as a method of coercing information from suspected terrorists and criminals, no matter which party controls the White House.

"If I were FBI director, it would never have anything to do with that," said Comey, who would serve a 10-year term if confirmed.

While serving in the Bush administration, Comey said he drafted a new analysis of existing statutes that had been used to legally justify waterboarding as an interrogation technique. He said he went to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to present his objections to the practice, but his case was rejected.

“[Gonzales] literally took my notes with him to a meeting at the White House and told me he made my argument in full, and that the principals were fully onboard with the policy. And so my argument was rejected,” Comey recalled.

By then, Comey had already announced his resignation. Comey said he wasn’t sure whether the Bush administration's endorsement and use of waterboarding would have spurred him to resign. He would have given it serious consideration, he said. 

Comey also said he was particularly concerned with “the use of six-and-a-half days of sleep deprivation” as an interrogation technique.

The Senate Intelligence panel completed a 6,000-page report last year on waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. The report is in the declassification process, but is said to provide little evidence that the controversial techniques are effective.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, asked Comey to review the report if he is confirmed.

Obama nominated Comey to replace Director Robert Mueller, who has served as the head of the FBI since shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mueller had his term extended for two years in 2011 and is planning to step down in September.

One of the toughest lines of questioning came from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who pressed Comey about whether it was proper to try suspected terrorists in civilian or military courts.

Sessions said there is a greater risk of revealing military and intelligence community secrets in a civilian court trial. 

Comey acknowledged that possibility but stopped short of saying which venue he would endorse if he became FBI director.

“I think in some ways the military commission has an advantage,” Comey said. “In other ways, I'm not sure. I think it depends upon the individual case.”

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) raised the issue of government drone use abroad against suspected terrorists, including American citizens.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council under Obama has written detailed memos explaining its legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad with drones. But only the House and Senate Judiciary and Intelligence panels have seen the still-classified memos.

Comey, who has not seen the memos, said he was not sure whether they should be made available to the public or not.

“I don't know, senator,” said Comey to Cornyn. “I think transparency's a very important value. I don't know well enough what's on the other side of the scale on that, the operational risks, the exposure of methods. So I'm not in a position to say that from this vantage point.”

Comey said he is prepared for a steep learning curve at the bureau, and that he will make mistakes. But he vowed to do everything in his power to make the FBI a stronger and more vital agency.

“I know that this will be a hard job. 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.”

This story was published at 11:10 a.m. and has been updated.