FBI Director James Comey: "Americans Should Be Deeply Skeptical Of Government Power"

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JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I believe that Americans should be deeply skeptical of government power. You cannot trust people in power. The founders knew that. That's why they divided power among three branches, to set interest against interest.

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: With regard to privacy and civil liberties, what guarantee are you willing to give to the American people?

James Comey: The promise I've tried to honor my entire career, that the rule of law and the design of the founders, right, the oversight of courts and the oversight of Congress will be at the heart of what the FBI does. The way you'd want it to be.

Scott Pelley: Does the FBI gather electronic surveillance that is then passed to the National Security Agency?

James Comey: That's one of those things I don't know whether I can talk about that in an open setting so I, I better not start to go down that road with you.

Scott Pelley: You have said, quote, "We shouldn't be doing anything that we can't explain." But these programs are top secret. The American people can't see them and you can't explain them.

James Comey: Right. We can't explain everything to everybody or the bad guys will find out what our capabilities are, both nations and individuals. What I mean is I need to be able to explain it either directly to the American people or to their elected representatives, which we do extensively with Congress.

Scott Pelley: There is no surveillance without court order?

James Comey: By the FBI? No. We don't do electronic surveillance without a court order.

Scott Pelley: You know that some people are going to roll their eyes when they hear that?

James Comey: Yeah, but we cannot read your emails or listen to your calls without going to a federal judge, making a showing of probable cause that you are a terrorist, an agent of a foreign power, or a serious criminal of some sort, and get permission for a limited period of time to intercept those communications. It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way.

That's a principle over which James Comey is willing to sacrifice his career. He proved it in 2004 when he was deputy attorney general. Comey was asked to reauthorize a package of top secret, warrantless, surveillance targeting foreign terrorists. But Comey told us "significant aspects" of the massive program were not lawful. He wouldn't be specific because it's still top secret.

Scott Pelley: This was not something you were willing to stand for?

James Comey: No, I was the deputy attorney general of the United States. We were not going to authorize, reauthorize or participate in activities that did not have a lawful basis.

At the time, Comey was in charge at the Justice Department because Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care with near fatal pancreatitis. When Comey refused to sign off, the president's Chief of Staff Andy Card headed to the hospital to get Ashcroft's OK.

Scott Pelley: You got in a car with lights and siren and raced to the hospital to beat the president's chief of staff there?

James Comey: Yep, raced over there, ran up the stairs, got there first.

Scott Pelley: What did you tell the attorney general, lying in his hospital bed?

James Comey: Not much, because he was very, very bad off. I tried to see whether he was oriented as to place and time. And it was clear to me that he wasn't. I tried to have him understand what this was about. And it wasn't clear to me that he understood what I was saying. So I sat down to wait.

Scott Pelley: To wait for Andy Card, the president's chief of staff?

James Comey: Yeah, and then White House counsel Gonzales.

Scott Pelley: They spoke to Attorney General Ashcroft and said that the program should be reauthorized and you were there to argue that it should not be. How did it end?

James Comey: With the attorney general surprising me, shocking me by pushing himself up on his elbows, and in very strong terms articulating the merits of the matter. And then saying, "But that doesn't matter because I'm not the attorney general." And then he turned to me and pointed and said, "There's the attorney general." And then he fell back. And they turned and left.

Scott Pelley: You'd won the day?

James Comey: Yeah, I didn't feel that way.

Scott Pelley: How did you feel?

James Comey: Probably a little sick. And a little sense of unreality that this was happening.

The next day, some in the White House tried to force the authorization through a different way. So Comey wrote a letter of resignation to the president calling the situation "apocalyptic" and "fundamentally wrong." He left the letter on his desk and he and FBI Director Robert Mueller went to the White House to resign.

James Comey: Yeah. We stood there together, waiting to go meet the president, looking out at the Rose Garden, both of us knowing this was our last time there, and the end of our government careers.

Scott Pelley: Wasn't it your responsibility to support the president?

James Comey: No. No, my responsibility, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Scott Pelley: This was something the president wanted to go forward with. And you were standing in front of the president of the United States telling him he shouldn't do it. And if he did, you'd quit. Do I have that right?

James Comey: Yeah, I don't think I expressly threatened to quit at any point. But that was understood.

President Bush was persuaded.

Scott Pelley: The program that we've discussed, as I understand it, was in fact reauthorized, but in a modified form? It was made to conform to the law in your estimation?

James Comey: Yes.

Scott Pelley: Help me understand the principle at stake here that caused you to write a letter of resignation, to rush to the attorney general's bedside, to tell the president that he couldn't have what he wanted, and to face down the president's chief of staff. What was it that motivated that?

James Comey: The rule of law. Simple as that.

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