By Julian Hattem - 05/21/14 12:10 PM EDT
The head of the FBI says he understands why people worry about the scope of the government's powers, and in fact, he agrees with them.
“I believe people should be suspicious of government power. I am,” Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning.
“I think this country was founded by people who were worried about government power so they divided it among three branches,” he added.
Though the controversial surveillance raised privacy concerns and made people fret that the government was snooping on their behavior, Comey said that the FBIs programs are run responsibly. He added that those operations had also helped to track down kidnappers and save children.
Comey assumed his top post shortly after the Snowden revelations came to light last summer. While much of the public's outrage has focused on activities at the National Security Agency, the FBI has also come under fire for its use of national security letters and operations to track foreign terrorists operating in the United States.
One of those efforts, which allows the government to track people outside the U.S. who may be plotting terror attacks, is “extraordinarily valuable,” Comey told senators on the panel.
The efforts, which are authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, include a program called PRISM that taps into data networks at major Web companies like Google, Facebook and Skype. From there, agents can look at photos, emails and other documents people upload.
The FBI’s national security letters, which Comey said were not used to obtain bulk quantities of information about people, require banks, phone companies, Internet service providers and other firms to hand over details about their customers. Recipients of the letters are largely prohibited from revealing details about the letters they get, which critics say amounts to a “gag order.”
Legislation is advancing in the House and Senate that would rein in those and other government data collection programs.
The House is scheduled to vote on the bill, called the USA Freedom Act, on Thursday, but some privacy advocates have worried that it has been overly watered down in recent weeks.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who introduced the upper chamber’s version of the surveillance reform bill, said on Wednesday that he was pleased by the House’s progress.
Though he added that he remained "concerned some important reforms in that act were removed."