WASHINGTON - The FBI's new director says he supports the government's electronic surveillance programme as a useful, "legal" tool, even though he opposed eavesdropping activities under ex-president George W. Bush.
Two weeks after taking over at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey said in an interview with AFP and several other news outlets that President Barack Obama's controversial spying policies were needed to counter a "metastasizing" threat from Al-Qaeda.
The former federal prosecutor and Republican, who towers at six feet eight inches (two meters) tall, comes to the job amid a firestorm over far-reaching surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and concerns over privacy rights, following dramatic leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
"It is both a useful tool and a tool that is circumscribed by all kinds of checks and balances," Comey said.
"Its challenge is to find a space in the American public life to talk about how those things work."
He called for public discussion to address the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews the spying, and "all the fences that are around this, why this is lawful and appropriate" under the US Constitution. During his time in the Justice Department under the Bush administration, Comey clashed with the White House in a now famous showdown over the legality of a domestic eavesdropping programme.
According to Comey's account to lawmakers and The New York Times, White House officials tried to persuade the then attorney general, John Ashcroft, to approve the programme while he was ill and undergoing treatment in a hospital, even though he had already decided to reject it.
Comey got word and raced to the hospital, and managed to prevent White House officials from pressuring the attorney general into approval. The programme, created in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, authorised the NSA to eavesdrop - without a court warrant - on telephone and online communications outside America even if the other end of the communication was located inside the United States.