Senate Should Scrutinize James Comey’s Record on Detainee Abuse
July 1, 2013
The Bush administration’s ‘torture memos’ sought to evade the clear prohibitions against torture under US and international law. The Senate Judiciary Committee should closely question James Comey about his apparent endorsement of some of those memos
Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel

(Washington, DC) – United States Senate Judiciary Committee members considering James Comey for the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should question him on his apparent approval of legal memos authorizing torture, Human Rights Watch and six other human rights and civil liberties groups said in a letter today to committee members.

While serving as deputy attorney general from 2003-2005, Comey wrote that he “concurred” with two legal memoranda that approved the use of waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation, and other forms of torture and ill-treatment.

“The Bush administration’s ‘torture memos’ sought to evade the clear prohibitions against torture under US and international law,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The Senate Judiciary Committee should closely question James Comey about his apparent endorsement of some of those memos.”

The FBI is the lead federal agency in interrogating suspects and is responsible for investigating allegations of torture by government officials. Before voting on Comey’s confirmation, the Senate should fully examine his past and current views on the use of torture and other forms of abuse against people in US custody.

In 2004, the Office of the Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the executive branch, wrote a memo addressed to Comey that upheld a 2002 “torture memo” that arguably approved the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture against Abu Zubaydah, an alleged close aid of Osama Bin Laden. Comey also “concurred” with a 2005 Office of the Legal Counsel memo that authorized interrogation methods such as cramped confinement, wall-standing, water dousing, extended sleep deprivation, and waterboarding, despite recognizing these techniques as “simply awful” and recommending against their use in combination. 

“Comey was at the center of the Justice Department when important decisions were being made about torture,” Prasow said. “The public has a right to know what positions he took, and the Judiciary Committee should demand full disclosure of his role during the confirmation process.”