Comey hearing reveals no credibility on torture, surveillanceFriday, July 12, 2013 at 9:07 am by Michael Figura
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing for James Comey, the nominee for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director.
The most contentious points of the hearing, which was generally congenial, focused on Comey’s views on torture and his approval of waterboarding during the Bush administration. While Comey asserted that he now believes that waterboarding is torture and is illegal, he struggled to explain his approval for the practice at the time.
Comey asserted that his decision at the time was based on the fact that 1994 statute governing torture was “very vague” and thus difficult to interpret. On its face, however, his assertion is incredible.
Waterboarding is designed to — and does — induce the fear of drowning and suffocation for its victim. The law defines torture as an act intended to “inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” caused by, among other things:
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death
The fear of death by drowning quite squarely fits all three.
Moreover, as pointed out at the hearing by Senator and Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and later Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), waterboarding has been recognized to be torture since the Spanish Inquisition and the US has prosecuted US Citizens and Japanese soldiers alike for waterboarding.
Even without the allegedly vague 1994 law, there existed an abundance of other laws and treaties that made waterboarding illegal. Thus, Comey’s answer seems to be disingenuous at best and has been been described far less charitably by prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote:
Give me a break. No court – domestic or foreign – had ever found waterboarding not to be torture in 2005 as surely as 1905. There is nothing vague whatsoever about it. Nor is there anything vague about the very broad anti-torture laws that the US enforced before the war criminals of the last administration got their hands on total power. And Comey has the gall to call himself a leader! He was not a leader; he was following orders. And he has not repudiated the many other torture techniques that were in place before his departure in 2005. Any government figure who has that amount of contempt for the law, that amount of confusion about clear legal rules, and that amount of tolerance for torture has no place in any public office, let alone the FBI.
Another form of torture, forcefeeding, was also raised at the hearing. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, vividly described the ongoing, brutal forced feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo who are on hunger strike.
Conscious rapper Mos Def also brought wide attention to the brutality of force feeding in a viral video seen by nearly 5 million people:
Comey noted that he would not like to undergo force feeding himself, but conspicuously declined to take a stand against the practice.
Finally, Comey indicated his support for the dragnet collection of metadata from law abiding people within the United States, arguing that it was valuable, but then declined to comment more extensively about the program, disclaiming knowledge of the widely publicized revelations about the NSA’s spying.
Pressed further by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) about the legality of such mass collection, Comey mused that it presented an interesting question and that, if confirmed, he would ask the Department of Justice to look into it. Comey also pushed back against the characterization by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of the secret FISA court as a rubber stamp, asserting, against the facts, that there was meaningful judicial review taking place.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has threatened to filibuster the Comey nomination over the FBI’s delay in responding to a set of inquiries about its use of domestic surveillance drones. This concern was also raised by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) at the hearing.
The hearing left unexamined a host of further, deeply problematic practices at the FBI, including the use of systemic racial profiling via ethnic mapping, the use of informants to target and entrap vulnerable people and populations, and the FBI’s embrace of biometric tracking.
The Judiciary committee will likely vote on Mr. Comey’s nomination in two weeks. While it his confirmation has been widely reported as inevitable, a fleeting opportunity remains to continue raising awareness about the past abuses of rights and liberties by Mr. Comey and the ongoing abuses of the FBI.