James Comey, the nominee for FBI director, seemed poised for an easy confirmation Tuesday after testifying that he objected to waterboarding and tried to lobby the Bush administration to stop using the practice to no avail.
After learning that the U.S. was using waterboarding against suspected terrorists, Comey, who was serving as deputy attorney general at the time, said he pressed the Justice Department, then run by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to end the practice.
"I went to the attorney general and said. "This is wrong, and this is awful. You have to go to the White House," Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "My argument was rejected."
Comey told the committee that his complaints were running up against a brick wall in the Bush administration, which believed the program was legal and effective in gleaning critical information to find other suspected terrorists and prevent future terrorist attacks.
Although he agreed the practice was legal when used alone, based on a 1994 legal opinion, he said he found the legality of the practice was compromised when used with a combination of other interrogation techniques that included other aggressive practices, such as keeping terrorism suspects at uncomfortable temperatures, stripping them and limiting their food.
He confronted Gonzales, but Comey said he was overruled.
"I went to the attorney general's office and said, "This is wrong. This is awful,' " he said. "I made the argument as forcefully as I could."
Under direct questioning from Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., about whether he thought waterboarding is torture and illegal, Comey unequivocally affirmed that it was.
Leahy also addressed the question of the sweeping surveillance programs, details of which Edward Snowden leaked to the media in recent weeks. He said the United States needs to be careful about compromising private citizens' privacy in the name of solving crimes or tracking terrorists.
"The government is collecting information on millions of totally innocent Americans on a daily basis. When is enough enough? Just because we have the ability collect huge amounts of data doesn't mean we should be doing it," Leahy said.
Comey has spent the last eight years in private practice so he said he couldn't comment about the sweeping information-gathering tactics.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., challenged Comey for not opposing warrantless wiretapping when he worked for the Bush administration, citing a story in the New York Times.
"I don't think the Times story is accurate," Comey said, although he declined to offer more details because he said he believed the program was still classified.
Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and the committee's ranking member, asked whether Comey would protect whistleblowers, a pet concern and an area in which Grassley has found the Obama administration lacking.
Comey said the federal government should prioritize those protections.
"Folks have to feel free to raise their concerns — retaliation is just unacceptable," he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Comey on the legality of the U.S. government's ability to use drones to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil if they didn't pose an imminent threat.
Comey said he didn't think the government could do so, to which Cruz said he agreed, noting that the "current administration has not always been so forthcoming in providing that answer."