FBI Director Jim Comey says he's "confused" by reports that characterize NSA contractor Edward Snowden as a "whistleblower" or a "hero" because, he says, all three branches of America's government have approved the bulk collection of U.S. phone records, one of the most important revelations in Snowden's cascade of leaks.
"I see the government operating the way the founders intended," Comey said, "so I have trouble applying the whistleblower label to someone who basically disagrees with the way our government is structured and operates."
In a lunchtime interview with reporters, Comey shied away from discussing the evidence against Snowden, who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and is living in Russia under a one-year grant of asylum.
Comey said that in his former role as a Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, his policy was not to negotiate with fugitives — except on arrangements that would bring them back to surrender and face justice in U.S. courts.
Snowden's supporters have called on the Obama White House to grant him clemency or start working out the terms of a plea deal — but Comey and other top officials appear to have ruled out such a move, for now.
Comey also spoke out to disagree with a recommendation by the president's review group on surveillance issues. The review panel urged President Obama to impose new checks on the FBI's use of national security letters (NSLs) to get financial and subscriber data — a process that Comey said "would turn something we can do in hours or days now into weeks."
The NSLs represent "very important building block tools" to vet people who espouse violent beliefs online, Comey said, pointing out that the letters already undergo multiple layers of oversight within the bureau.
To require a judge to approve the letters to credit card companies, banks and telecoms, Comey said, "would actually make it harder for us to do national security investigations than bank fraud investigations," the latter of which can be accomplished through a subpoena generated by a prosecutor without a judge's blessing.
"What is broken for which we need that solution?" he asked.
Earlier this week, Comey said, he met with three of the five members of the presidentially appointed surveillance review group and indicated he thought there was more room for compromise on a related issue — permanent gag orders on companies that receive NSLs.
Comey told reporters that "we ought to be able to work something out on that," to release the companies from those binding agreements after a period of time.
Three months into the job, the new FBI director said he had already visited several offices across the U.S. and 10 sites where agents are stationed overseas. Comey said it was "a little too early" to describe his new priorities in detail, but he said the management and technology systems inside the government had become so sophisticated that they didn't differ much from his experience in the private sector at Lockheed Martin and a prominent hedge fund.
These days, the bureau has its eye on security for the forthcoming Super Bowl and the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Russian security services have taken the lead on securing facilities for athletes and spectators, but about three dozen FBI employees will travel to Moscow and Sochi to offer support.
The biggest and most worrisome national security threat, Comey said, comes from a stream of Westerners who travel to Syria and other parts of the Middle East to fight — and then return to their respective homelands.
"It is one of my greatest worries in the counter-terrorism area because the conflict in Syria has attracted so many people of so many motivations, including Americans, that it is an enormous challenge ... to identify the ones with bad intent," Comey said. "It is something we are spending a lot of time on."
In other news, Comey said the FBI has completed the internal investigation into the killing of a Chechen man in Florida while he was being questioned about his relationship to the accused Boston Marathon bombers. But the Justice Department and a local prosecutor have not yet finished their work on the civil rights probe, so a final announcement on the case is a short ways away.
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