When Attorney General William Barr acknowledged the Donald Trump campaign was spied on in 2016 by agencies investigating a dramatic conspiracy theory about alleged collusion with Russia, and said he’d like to review the matter, those who pushed the theory began to panic.
Some media figures attempted to deny that spying had occurred, even though it had been revealed in various and sundry ways. They conceded that overseas intelligence assets had been placed against the campaign, that wiretaps had been secured, and that national security letters had been drafted, but they claimed these examples of spying were not spying. That they’d regularly and repeatedly referred to them as spying in non-Trump contexts slowed them down not at all.
Some tried to pretend that the only example of spying was the surveillance of Carter Page, but that it didn’t count because he’d left the campaign before the surveillance began. There were a few problems, including that wiretaps can be used to secure information from months and years prior to the date it is obtained. Besides, Page had encounters with an overseas U.S. intelligence asset while he was still on the campaign. So had other campaign affiliates.
The media had previously reported that four Trump affiliates had been
spied on secretly surveilled: Page, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Mike Flynn. It is unclear what other American citizens on the Trump campaign, if anyone, were spied on by their government.
Last Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a quintet of pundits sputtered about Barr’s description. Barr specifically said he was not saying anything improper had definitively happened, just that it needed to be reviewed since spying on American citizens was such a serious thing.
“Spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated,” he said.
Barr referenced controversial spying on American citizens during the Vietnam War, which led to reforms in the laws governing such spying.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr said. “It’s big deal. The generation I grew up in, which was the Vietnam War period, you know, people were all concerned about spying on the antiwar people and so forth by the government. And there were a lot of rules put in place to make sure that there’s an adequate basis before our law-enforcement agencies get involved in political surveillance. I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated. But I think it’s important to look at that,” he said, adding that he felt an “obligation to make sure that government power was not abused.”
National affairs analyst John Heilemann said, inexplicably, there was “no evidence” for Barr’s claim. Host Joe Scarborough then pivoted to a completely different line of argument. He said that while there was no evidence of spying, such spying on political opponents is a totally normal and accepted practice.
“Everything was done by the book and there were procedural safeguards,” Scarborough said, before sputtering that Barr was “stupid” and “reckless and irresponsible.” He also said the well regarded attorney who soberly stated indisputable facts was “destroying his legacy here.”
While a thorough investigation will need to be performed to figure out how the FBI and other agencies got wrapped up in a conspiracy theory that they felt justified breaking norms and spying on political foes, it is not true that everything was “by the book.”
For example, FBI Director James Comey failed to notify Congress for nine months that an investigation into the Trump campaign had been opened, even though he was supposed to provide quarterly updates about particularly sensitive investigations. In fact, Rep. Elise Stefanik just introduced legislation to make it more difficult for FBI directors to thwart “the book” on these matters.
While at least four
spy secret surveillance warrants were approved, a congressional investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence described the verification effort before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) not as “by the book” but so inadequate it resembled a concerted effort to conceal information from the court:
- A salacious and unverified dossier formed an essential part of the application to secure a warrant against a Trump campaign affiliate named Carter Page. This application failed to reveal that the dossier was bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
- The application presented a Yahoo News article as corroboration for the dossier, when in fact it was sourced to the dossier’s author Christopher Steele.
- The wife of a high-ranking Justice Department official also worked on behalf of the Clinton campaign effort, and her husband Bruce Ohr funneled her research into the Department of Justice. Although he admitted that Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president,” this and the Ohrs’ relationship with the Clinton campaign was concealed from the secret court that grants surveillance warrants.
- The dossier was “only minimally corroborated” and unverified, according to FBI officials.
A criminal referral from the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed that the dossier was unverified when it was used to secure the wiretaps.
A third example of the anti-Trump campaign not going “by the book” was the widespread use of leaks to further the investigation and the false narrative of treasonous collusion with Russia to steal the election. U.S. officials selectively leaked information to frequently give the impression that Trump was a threat to national security because of his illegal actions with Vladimir Putin.
Leaking classified information is illegal, although no one has been held responsible yet for the criminal leak against Flynn, which falsely suggested he was an agent of Putin. But even leaks of non-classified information can be extremely harmful to national security. High-level intelligence officials arranged a meeting with president-elect Trump to brief him on the now-discredited dossier in order to leak it to friendly reporters at CNN. This leak turbocharged the Trump-Russia conspiracy that devoured CNN and other media outlets. It was not done “by the book.”
Presumably some of the spying on the Trump campaign was done “by the book,” but that doesn’t include using false information as pretext to spy on Americans, attempting to extort elected officials through bogus investigations, refusing to charge ideological allies who committed crimes, lying to Congress, refusing to respond to congressional document requests, using intelligence and law enforcement as “insurance policies” against political enemies, widespread unmasking of political opponents and dissemination of their information, using foreign spies to produce evidence not permissible in court, circular introduction of “evidence” to government agents that is reintroduced through media leaks, and various other actions taken by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Scarborough would have you believe that these actions are completely typical and normal, that informants are placed against campaigns all the time. If that’s true, who else are they doing it against? Can Donald Trump’s officials open investigations against the many Democratic candidates without notifying Congress, using bogus opposition research to secure wiretaps? To quote an MSNBC morning host, “Is he that stupid?”
One more thing about the phrase “by the book.” I can’t be the only person to notice that the phrase is the same one used by Susan Rice in a curious email she sent to herself on the date Trump was inaugurated. The email was about a January 5 meeting between President Obama, former FBI director Comey, and former deputy attorney general Sally Yates regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book’. The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book.”
As senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina wrote more than a year ago, “It strikes us as odd that, among your activities in the final moments on the final day of the Obama administration, you would feel the need to send yourself such an unusual email purporting to document a conversation involving President Obama and his interactions with the FBI regarding the Trump/Russia investigation. In addition, despite your claim that President Obama repeatedly told Mr. Comey to proceed ‘by the book,’ substantial questions have arisen about whether officials at the FBI, as well as at the Justice Department and the State Department, actually did proceed ‘by the book.’”
Someone alert Joe Scarborough.