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Senate confirms Comey as FBI director

Published On: Jul 29 2013 05:28:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 30 2013 04:39:37 AM CDT
James Comey

CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -

Nearly 40 days after President Barack Obama nominated James Comey as FBI director, the Senate on Monday approved the appointment of the former deputy attorney general who worked in the George W. Bush administration.

The vote came after Sen. Rand Paul dropped his opposition to a confirmation vote on Comey, clearing the path for the Senate to vote on the president's nominee.

In the 93-1 vote, Paul was the only senator who voted against the confirmation.

Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, had blocked a confirmation vote this summer while demanding answers from the law enforcement agency about the legal use of surveillance drones in the United States.

The FBI had responded to his questions twice as of last week, saying they acquire a warrant before using a drone when a suspected individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. But Paul sent another letter Thursday asking for more clarification on the FBI's understanding of a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

Paul announced Monday that the FBI had responded again, reiterating that the Supreme Court's interpretation of a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment would "apply to all of our investigations and any collection of information."

Although he wasn't satisfied with the answer, he decided to withdraw his hold on Comey's nomination.

"I disagree with this interpretation. However, given the fact that they did respond to my concerns over drone use on U.S. soil, I have decided to release my hold on the pending FBI director nominee," Paul said in a statement.

On Monday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called on senators to support Comey so the FBI could have a confirmed director before Congress breaks for its month-long August recess and before the 12-year tenure of the current director, Robert Mueller, ends in September.

The Vermont Democrat noted this was the first time an FBI director nominee had been filibustered in history. Obama nominated Comey on June 21.

"We should be voting to confirm James Comey tonight. It has already taken twice as long to bring this nomination up for a vote in the full Senate as for any previous FBI director," Leahy said in a statement. "No other FBI director has waited longer than 20 days from nomination to confirmation. The FBI director plays a vital role in our national security, and the Senate must put an end to these routine delays."

In his role as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration, Comey received both praise and criticism from outside groups. Comey testified to a Senate committee in 2007 that he had considered resigning his high-profile position over a disagreement three years earlier about the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.

Government officials had told CNN that Comey had "vigorously opposed" aspects of the warrantless wiretapping program and refused to sign off on its continued use. The program was eventually reauthorized.

Comey's nomination came as the Obama administration has wrestled this summer with its own controversy surrounding NSA surveillance.

Human rights groups have criticized Comey's alleged support of other controversial Bush-era national security policies such as indefinite detention and detainee treatment programs such as waterboarding.

Since leaving government, Comey has worked in executive positions at defense contractor Lockheed Martin and the financial management firm Bridgewater and Associates.

Most recently he worked in academia as a senior research scholar and Hertog Fellow in National Security Law at Columbia Law School.

For his part, Paul has been a leading voice on seeking answers about the legal use of drones by the U.S. government in counterterrorism operations overseas. He led a filibuster earlier this year, blocking a vote on Obama's nomination of John Brennan as CIA director while he pressed for answers about the government's policy for drone strikes in the United States.

In its previous correspondence with Paul, the FBI revealed in an unclassified letter dated July 19 that it has used unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance in 10 cases on U.S. soil - eight of them criminal and two involving national security.

"None of the unmanned aerial vehicles used by the FBI are armed with either lethal or non-lethal weapons, and the FBI has no plans to use weapons with UAVs," wrote FBI Assistant Director Stephen Kelly.

Drones were authorized for surveillance in three other criminal cases, but they were not used, according to the letter.

While CNN previously reported the FBI has used drones on U.S. soil about a dozen times, the recent letter marked the first time it broke the number down between criminal cases and national security cases.

The letter listed examples of drone use, including in the case of a 5-year-old child held hostage in an underground bunker in Alabama earlier this year.

But Paul said last week the new information was not enough to answer his questions.

Paul first issued a letter about drone surveillance last month asking Mueller about the FBI's policies. When he received no response, he sent a second letter on July 9, saying he would object to the consideration of Comey as Mueller's successor until he received "adequate answers" to his questions.

The FBI sent two responses this month, one classified and one unclassified.

In the unclassified version, the FBI went on the record about the 10 cases of drone surveillance. The FBI also maintained that it would acquire a warrant before using a drone when the suspected individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Paul sent a new letter on Thursday, asking for more clarification on the FBI's understanding of a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

"I am concerned that an overbroad interpretation of this protection would enable more substantial information collection on an individual in a circumstance they might not have believed was subject to surveillance," the letter stated.

He also pressed for copies of educational and training material the FBI uses on such matters.