Senate readies tough questions for Obama’s FBI director nominee

James Comey has received bipartisan support since President Obama nominated him to lead the FBI, but still faces a difficult confirmation battle given a host of controversies related to the agency.

Senators in both parties have expressed concerns about the future of the FBI, which hasn’t had a new leader since Director Robert Mueller took over in 2001.

Comey served as deputy attorney general in President George W. Bush’s administration, giving him some credentials with Republican senators.

But the FBI’s sweeping powers suggest Comey will get some tough questions when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings the week Congress returns to Washington after the July 4 recess.

Here’s a look at some of the topics expected to dominate those discussions.

Miranda rights and enemy combatant status

Republicans have heavily criticized the FBI and Justice Department for reading suspected terrorists their Miranda rights before interrogating them.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform MORE (R-S.C.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others argue giving suspects those rights puts lives at risk.

Graham, who sits on the Judiciary panel, promised to press Comey on his views about whether the U.S. should treat suspected terrorists as criminal defendants or enemy combatants.

“I’d be asking about: When are we fighting a war? When are we fighting a crime? What’s the difference? And does [Comey] buy into the idea that we’re at war and the homeland’s a part of the battlefield?,” Graham told The Hill.

After the surviving suspect in the Boston marathon bombing was arrested, a public safety exemption was employed briefly to question Dzokhar Tsarnaev without reading his rights, but was quickly thwarted by a lone federal magistrate who read him his Miranda rights.

Missteps leading up to the Boston bombing

The FBI has been under intense scrutiny by Democrats and Republicans seeking answers as to why officials did not conduct a more lengthy investigation of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed after a manhunt.

Russian authorities alerted the bureau to his suspicious behavior, yet Tsarnaev remained free to alledgedly plan and carry out the bombing with his younger brother.

Mueller has assured lawmakers that the FBI investigated Tsarnaev, a U.S. resident, as far as it legally could and that no red flags were raised.

Senators are likely to press Comey about how he thinks the FBI could have prevented the Boston attack and what steps he would take as director to help thwart another such attack.

Drones, drones, drones

Mueller recently revealed that the FBI uses a small fleet of drones within the U.S. to conduct surveillance for specific operations.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, immediately wrote to Holder asking for more information about the program. Grassley gave Holder until this past Friday to respond with more specific information.

Though he generally supports Comey, Grassley can be expected to press the nominee about what he intends to do with the FBI’s drone program and how he plans to ensure civil liberties are guaranteed.

Eavesdropping and electronic monitoring

Comey is perhaps best known for refusing to reauthorize a controversial warrantless surveillance program in 2004 while serving as the acting attorney general.

Comey said the DOJ did not have the legal authority to continue to carry out the program which began in 2001 under President George W. Bush. He also reportedly rushed to the hospital bed of Attorney General John Ashcroft to head off an effort by other officials to get Ashcroft to sign off on the program.

But according to a recently unearthed draft copy of a National Security Agency inspector general report, part of the surveillance program, which focused on the “bulk collection of Internet metadata,” was simply transferred to another program under a new name. Under the new name, it was given a more sound legal framework and justification, according to the Guardian.

Senators are likely to press Comey on what role he played in overseeing similar programs and what the future of them would look like under his leadership of the FBI given the controversy over the NSA surveillance programs.


Senate Minority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSchumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Data reveal big opportunity to finish the vaccine job GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation MORE (R-Texas), who also sits on the Judiciary panel, said the number one issue for him was how Comey plans to modernize the FBI.

“They’ve had a big problem with modernization, particularly in their technology development,” Cornyn told The Hill. “I’d like to talk to him about modernizing the FBI and understand better what his priorities are for the agency.”

One of the biggest boondoggles for the bureau has been the development of the Sentinel case management system, which ballooned to $450 million over the course of six years.

Finally launched in 2012, Sentinel allows FBI officials to do away with paper records in exchange for a complete digitalization of criminal and national security cases, aiming to streamline the sharing of information.