President Donald Trump has long insisted that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama spied on his campaign during the 2016 election, so he welcomed his attorney general’s apparent validation of that allegation during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
“I think what he said was absolutely true,” Trump told reporters at the White House Thursday. “There was absolutely spying into my campaign. I’ll go a step further: In my opinion, it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying, and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”
“I think spying did occur,” Attorney General William Barr told senators, though he declined to specify what he was referring to, and he later stated he was not trying to suggest the spying violated the law.
Over two years ago, Trump claimed without evidence on Twitter that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. That accusation remains wholly unsubstantiated, but it is clear the FBI and DOJ conducted surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser and sent an informant to speak with campaign aides in the course of a counterintelligence investigation of Russian interference in the election.
Pressed on the use of the term “spying” by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Barr softened his language slightly but still cast doubt on the validity of actions investigators took.
“I’m not sure of all the connotations of that word that you’re referring to, but, you know, unauthorized surveillance,” Barr said. “I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance.”
Democrats accused Barr of fueling Trump’s conspiracy theories with loaded language that carries inaccurate and ominous connotations.
“Let me just say how very, very dismaying and disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails, yesterday and today,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday. “He is the attorney general of the United States of America, not the attorney general of Donald Trump.”
A source familiar with Barr’s thinking told CNN he did not mean “spying” in a pejorative sense and was just talking about intelligence collection. The source insisted the attorney general was not trying to throw red meat to the president’s base with his comments.
Some former FBI agents say “spying” is not the right term for the surveillance of former Trump adviser Carter Page, which was legally authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“In a general way, the term spying—versus surveillance—has a more sinister, pejorative context, and in the United States, spying has a legal implication in the sense that lawfully collected surveillance is not illegal, but spying would be illegal,” said David Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent-in-charge.
According to John Iannarelli, a former FBI spokesman who also worked as an investigator, the FBI has procedures in place for intelligence operations, and any surveillance activity against an American citizen is closely monitored. The application to wiretap Page would have gone through several levels of review at top levels of the bureau and the DOJ before a judge signed off on it.
“As far as a true FBI intelligence gathering mission, there are a lot of checks and balances and various personnel you have to work with for that to occur,” he said.
However, Jim Wedick, the former head of an FBI anti-corruption unit in California, said the circumstances surrounding the intelligence collection on Trump associates were far from typical, and it is not entirely clear those checks and balances were operational.
“What happened back in 2016 is, in fact, historic because before then, people would have been very circumspect about spying on one party or another, and that is simply because the view at headquarters would have been, ‘What are you doing? You better have some serious predication to initiate this conversation,'” he said.
Barr made clear Wednesday he is still trying to assess whether such a predicate existed.
“The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting it was not adequately predicated. But I need to explore that,” he told senators.
The counterintelligence probe involving Trump’s campaign was launched in mid-2016 after a foreign ambassador reported Trump adviser George Papadopoulos made comments suggesting inside knowledge of Russia’s hacking operation. Investigators later obtained a dossier of raw intelligence about Trump’s connections to Russia provided by a former British spy working with Clinton’s campaign.
Heavily-redacted versions of documents related to the FISA application for Page were released last year, and they show the dossier was a major piece of the evidence cited to justify it. Investigators did not explicitly describe the source as someone affiliated with Clinton, and Republicans have alleged that omission amounted to lying to the FISA court.
According to Wedick, it was highly unusual for the FBI to place so much faith in a document without verifying its contents, especially considering some of the salacious claims the dossier contained.
“All the doors were blown open, and nobody was circumspect about anything,” he said.
Barr revealed this week he intends to conduct his own review of the origins of the counterintelligence probe. This would be in addition to an ongoing investigation by the DOJ Inspector General’s Office and U.S. Attorney John Huber’s review of many of the same issues.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., dismissed Barr’s effort as a distraction from the fight to release an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
“Questioning whether or not the probe should have ever begun or how it should proceed is secondary,” Durbin said. “Let’s see the report.”
However, Republicans say Barr is doing exactly what they have been demanding for months.
“Those hung up on the AG’s use of the word ‘spying’ sound ridiculous. What would you call using human informants to secretly gather information?” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., tweeted Wednesday. “I call it spying. Because that’s what it is. And bravo to Attorney General Barr for looking into it.”
Although some have questioned the necessity of Barr retreading ground others have covered, experts say the new attorney general wanting to get a handle on what happened is not unreasonable.
“Considering all the accusations that have been out there, he’d be remiss not to ensure everything is operating as it should,” Iannarelli said.
According to Gomez, Barr seems to be acquiescing to pressure from Trump, but the information made public so far suggests he is most likely going to find the FISA court properly authorized the surveillance.
“I think from a political standpoint, he sees it as necessary to justify to the president’s base that it has been reviewed,” Gomez said.
Barr said Inspector General Michael Horowitz should be done with his investigation in May or June. In the meantime, Wedick hopes the attorney general can provide a definitive assessment of whether the initial investigation was justified.
“A lot of us—the media, the public, and the bureau—we still don’t know. We’re starting to lose faith,” he said.
Among the questions that persist about the early days of the investigation, Republicans have often questioned why the FBI did not notify Trump that it suspected Russia had infiltrated his campaign. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. noted the bureau informed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when a suspected spy was recently uncovered in her office.
“They never told Trump, ‘You may have a problem with people connected with Russia,'” Graham said in an interview with “Full Measure” host Sharyl Attkisson. “Why? … I think they wanted to get into his campaign using counterintelligence as a way to do it. I think they didn’t really believe there was collusion. They just wanted to get into the Trump world.”
Former agents say the calculation for investigators would be more complicated than Graham suggested. They would have to weigh the enormous implications of what they suspected was happening against the risk that notifying the campaign could undermine the operation.
“Under normal circumstances, you might not want to notify anybody, but this is very serious,” Iannarelli said. “You’re dealing with a presidential campaign. You’re calling into question the integrity of those who are seeking to be elected to the highest office.”
According to Wedick, the decision to inform Trump or not would depend on how high up investigators believed the corruption reached.
“Because it’s a security issue, the tendency would be, do you really think they’re criminally colluding with the Russians?” he said.
If officials genuinely felt they had strong evidence of collusion, they would not want to tip off anyone in the campaign who might be involved. Given Mueller’s finding that the campaign was not colluding with Russia, though, Wedick is skeptical the FBI had evidence that convincing in hand.
“I sat on the desk here,” he said. “Those things do happen, and we will make a hard call if we have to. It just has to be that we’re not fudging or looking for facts. We have to have the facts.”
by Stephen Loiaconi
WJLA.com ABC 7