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FBI director nominee calls whistleblowers 'critical element of functioning democracy'

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FBI director nominee James Comey (Credit: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing)
FBI director nominee James Comey (Credit: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing)

As conflicting reports emerge about the political status of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden today, President Obama's new pick to lead the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, just told a US Senate committee that he believes whistleblowers in the FBI are "a critical element of a functioning democracy" and that he would take steps to protect them if he's confirmed.

"retaliation is just unacceptable."

Asked by one member of the US Senate Judiciary Committee for a "commitment that you'll not retaliate against FBI whistleblowers, and instead work with them to address the concerns that they raise," Comey answered: "yes, I give you that assurance now. Senator, as I said to you when we spoke privately, I think whistleblowers are also a critical element of a functioning democracy. Folks have to feel free to raise their concerns, and if they are not addressed up their chain-of-command, to take them to an appropriate place." Asked about retaliation against whistleblowers by members of their organization or their superiors, Comey said "retaliation is just unacceptable."

Comey also came out strongly against the practice of waterboarding — used on terror suspect detainees during the George W. Bush administration — saying he thought it was illegal and would not allow it under his watch. He did however, come out in support of the collection of metadata, which includes information such as who called who, when and for how long. A leaked court document published by The Guardian in early June revealed that the FBI and NSA were collecting all metadata from Verizon Wireless customers in the US, and additional reports indicate most other major wireless carriers likely hand over such metadata to US intelligence agencies as well.

"I wouldn't want to let transparency be the only value."

Comey was asked by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) about moving to declassify rulings from the US government's secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) — which gives the FBI and NSA their powers to conduct the phone surveillance, as well as the NSA's internet surveillance program PRISM revealed by Snowden. Comey said he would like to offer more transparency but needed to be confirmed to evaluate what court documents could be made public without posing a security risk. "I think that transparency is a key value, especially when it helps the American people understand what the government is doing to try and keep them safe," Comey explained. "And I think if they understood more, they would feel better about it. It's when folks don't know things that people can question whether the government's doing the right thing." But added. "I wouldn't want to let transparency be the only value... in that I would lose some operational advantage, or let the bad guys know something by virtue of that."

"I don't think the Fourth Amendment has, like your yogurt, an 'expires on' date on it."

Senators, namely libertarian-leaning Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), were also interested in Comey's approach on protecting the Fourth Amendment right that protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures, during investigations involving people's emails. Comey said he was in favor of the government collecting metadata without a search warrant, but not content. "I don't think the Fourth Amendment has, like your yogurt, an 'expires on' date on it," Comey said. He also volunteered his and the FBI's support to amend the current law that allows the agency to search the contents of emails without a warrant if the emails are older than 180 days. "It sounds like an anachronism to me," Comey said. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to modify this rule, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and require a warrant to search all emails in April, but the bill has not moved forward since. The hearing moved on to drones and other surveillance questions, but concluded on a high note, with Comey looked poised to sail through his confirmation next week.