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WASHINGTON — James Comey, picked by President Obama to head the FBI, delivered a strong rebuke of waterboarding during his confirmation hearing Tuesday despite previously signing memos that approved the tactic during the George W. Bush administration.

Comey, the No. 2 official in the Bush Justice Department, said that when he first learned about waterboarding, “My first reaction as a citizen and a leader was, ‘This is torture.’ ”

Waterboarding is a controversial interrogation technique that forces water into a suspect’s nose and mouth to simulate the sense of drowning.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey also parried questions related to the current debate over the government’s use of surveillance programs and metadata to prevent terrorism.

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Comey said he did not know details of the current programs but offered an endorsement of greater transparency.

“I think the transparency is a key value, especially when it helps the American people understand what the government is doing to try to keep them safe,” Comey said.

Discussing Comey’s role in the interrogation practices of the Bush administration, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the panel, expressed concerns over the memos Comey had signed while at Justice approving certain tactics, which included waterboarding.

“These memos led to the treatment of detainees that was contrary to our laws and our values, and this, frankly, made us less safe,” Leahy said.

Comey said that he believed the 1994 federal anti-torture statute was vague in its application to interrogation techniques, and while he tried to halt use of the tactic, he was unsuccessful.

He testified that he told then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, “This is wrong; this is awful. You have to go to the White House and force them to stare at this and answer that question. I believe the answer is we should not be involved in this kind of stuff. And so I made that argument as forcefully as I could. … He took my — actually literally took my notes with him to a meeting at the White House and told me he made my argument in full, and that the principals were fully onboard with the policy. And so my argument was rejected.”

But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that he believed that the Obama administration’s refusal to use enhanced interrogation techniques is harmful to national security.

If confirmed by the Senate, Comey, a former federal prosecutor, would succeed FBI Director Robert Mueller. His background appears to have secured bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but civil liberties groups and some Democrats have voiced concerns about his record of signing off on tactics employed by the Bush administration to go after and prosecute suspected terrorists.

Comey, however, opposed some of those methods in a now-famous 2004 nighttime episode at the bedside of Ashcroft, when the attorney general was hospitalized and had temporarily transferred his authority to Comey.

Top Bush administration officials went to hospital to persuade the ailing Ashcroft, despite his condition, to approve warrantless surveillance. Comey arrived at the hospital before the Bush officials and as acting attorney general blocked their attempts.

He also was asked about to the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, which was disclosed recently by former NSA analyst-turned-fugitive Edward Snowden; government whistle-blowers; and the force-feeding of Guantánamo inmates.

He told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that as FBI director, the forced-feeding issue wouldn’t come under his authority. But he added, “What you’re describing, I frankly wouldn’t want done to me. But I don’t know the circumstances well enough to offer you an opinion.”

Comey said the NSA surveillance program, which relies on metadata, tiny bits of information that could provide information, such as a user’s location or a comprehensive call sheet, is a “valuable tool in counterterrorism.” He compared the tactic to looking at the outside of an envelope, versus opening it to read the contents.

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