In Senate testimony last week, Attorney General William Barr used the word “spying” to refer to the Obama administration, um, spying on the Trump campaign.
Of course, fainting spells ensued, with the media-Democrat complex in meltdown. Former FBI Director Jim Comey tut-tutted that he was confused by Barr’s comments, since the FBI’s “surveillance” had been authorized by a court.
(Needless to say, the former director neglected to mention that the court was not informed that the bureau’s “evidence” for the warrants was unverified hearsay paid for by the Clinton campaign.)
The pearl-clutching was predictable. Less than a year ago, we learned the Obama administration had used a confidential informant — a spy — to approach at least three Trump campaign officials in the months leading up to the 2016 election, straining to find proof that the campaign was complicit in the Kremlin’s hacking of Democratic emails.
As night follows day, we were treated to the same Beltway hysteria we got this week: Silly semantic carping over the word “spying” — which, regardless of whether a judge authorizes it, is merely the covert gathering of intelligence about a suspected wrongdoer, organization or foreign power.
There is no doubt that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign. As Barr made clear, the real question is: What predicated the spying? Was there a valid reason for it, strong enough to overcome our norm against political spying? Or was it done rashly? Was a politically motivated decision made to use highly intrusive investigative tactics when a more measured response would have sufficed, such as a “defensive briefing” that would have warned the Trump campaign of possible Russian infiltration?
Last year, when the “spy” games got underway, James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, conceded that, yes, the FBI did run an informant — “spy” is such an icky word — at Trump campaign officials; but, we were told, this was merely to investigate Russia. Cross Clapper’s heart, it had nothing to do with the Trump campaign. No, no, no. Indeed, the Obama administration only used an informant because — bet you didn’t know this — doing so is the most benign, least intrusive mode of conducting an investigation.
Me? I’m thinking the tens of thousands of convicts serving lengthy sentences due to the penetration of their schemes by informants would beg to differ. (Gee, Mr. Gambino, I assure you, this was just for you own good . . .) And imagine the Democrats’ response if, say, the Bush administration had run a covert intelligence operative against Obama 2008 campaign officials, including the campaign’s co-chairman. Surely David Axelrod, Chuck Schumer, The New York Times and Rachel Maddow would chirp that “all is forgiven” once they heard Republicans punctiliously parse the nuances between “spying” and “surveillance”; between “spies” and “informants”; and between investigating campaign officials versus investigating the campaign proper — and the candidate.
The “spying” question arose last spring, when we learned that Stefan Halper, a longtime source for the CIA and British intelligence, had been tasked during the FBI’s Russia investigation to chat up three Trump campaign advisers: Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Sam Clovis. This was in addition to earlier revelations that the Obama Justice Department and FBI had obtained warrants to eavesdrop on Page’s communications, beginning about three weeks before the 2016 election.
The fact that spying had occurred was too clear for credible denial. The retort, then, was misdirection: There had been no spying on Donald Trump or his campaign; just on a few potential bad actors in the campaign’s orbit.
It was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now.
The pols making these claims about what the FBI was doing might have been well served by listening to what the FBI said it was doing.
There was, for example, then-Director Comey’s breathtaking public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20, 2017. Comey did not just confirm the existence of a counterintelligence probe of Russian espionage to influence the 2016 election — notwithstanding that the government customarily refuses to confirm the existence of any investigation, let alone a classified counterintelligence investigation. The director further identified the Trump campaign as a subject of the probe, even though, to avoid smearing people, the Justice Department never identifies uncharged persons or organizations that are under investigation. As Comey put it:
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts . . .”
The FBI was spying, and it was doing so in an investigation of the Trump campaign. That is why, for over two years, Washington has been entranced by the specter of “Trump collusion with Russia” — not Page or Papadopoulos collusion with Russia. Comey went to extraordinary lengths to tell the world that the FBI was not merely zeroing in on individuals of varying ranks in the campaign; the main question was whether the Trump campaign itself — the entity — had “coordinated” in Russia’s espionage operation.
In the months prior to the election, as its Trump-Russia investigation ensued, some of the overtly political, rabidly anti-Trump FBI agents running the probe discussed among themselves the prospect of stopping Trump, or of using the investigation as an “insurance policy” in the highly unlikely event that Trump won the election. After Trump’s stunning victory, the Obama administration had a dilemma: How could the investigation be maintained if Trump were told about it? After all, as president, he would have the power to shut it down.
On Jan. 6, 2017, Comey, Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and National Security Agency chief Michael Rogers visited President-elect Trump in New York to brief him on the Russia investigation.
Just one day earlier, at the White House, Comey and then–Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had met with the political leadership of the Obama administration — President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser Susan Rice — to discuss withholding information about the Russia investigation from the incoming Trump administration.
Rice put this sleight-of-hand a bit more delicately in the memo about the Oval Office meeting (written two weeks after the fact, as Rice was leaving her office minutes after Trump’s inauguration):
“President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia. [Emphasis added.]”
It is easy to understand why Obama officials needed to discuss withholding information from Trump. They knew that the Trump campaign — not just some individuals tangentially connected to the campaign — was the subject of an ongoing FBI counterintelligence probe. An informant had been run at campaign officials. The FISA surveillance of Page was underway — in fact, right before Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration obtained a new court warrant for 90 more days of spying.