People are dragging him for this because (a) dragging Comey has become one of America’s most enjoyable (and bipartisan) political pastimes and (b) it’s almost self-parody that a former FBI director wouldn’t regard his own agency’s surveillance tactics as “spying.” Spying is what the bad guys do, see. Go figure that a successor to J. Edgar Hoover is more sanguine about his own outfit’s intrusions into people’s privacy.
But he has a point about the weirdness of Barr’s testimony a few days ago. The term “spying” does come loaded with certain assumptions, foremost that the surveillance to which it refers is unlawful. Espionage is a crime punishable by death, after all. To accuse the feds of “spying,” as Barr did, was to imply that the investigation into Team Trump’s connections with Russia was illicit — which was strange because in the same breath Barr made a point of saying that he had no reason to believe that.
“I think spying did occur. But the question is whether it was predicated — adequately predicated,” Barr testified. “I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation. Congress is usually very concerned about intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies staying in their proper lane.”
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal,” Barr added, an apparent reference to GOP allegations that the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor former Trump 2016 campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
However, later in the hearing, Barr clarified he hasn’t proven there was any wrongdoing. “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred, I’m saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it, that’s all,” he said.
The Russiagate probe was improper, he suggests, before scrambling to make clear that he has no firm reason to believe that. No wonder Russiagate true believers thought he was pandering to his boss there, trying to casually delegitimize the investigation while covering his ass by clarifying that he wasn’t doing that. “A person who has discussed the matter with Mr. Barr said that he did not mean to imply that the [surveillance] measures had been improper,” notes the Times, but that’s hard to believe given his emphasis during testimony that “spying” on the campaign was a “big deal.” Clearly he meant to insinuate that misconduct had occurred. And then he chickened out.
Maybe he knows what the IG’s investigation has uncovered about of Russiagate’s origins and isn’t prepared to talk about it yet. Ed was right to note earlier how surprising it is in hindsight that the feds had enough on Carter Page to get a FISA warrant but ultimately not enough to indict him for anything. Between that and the many dubious elements of the Steele dossier, Barr can make a case that the probe was, if not quite unlawful, at least ill-advised and poorly founded. Although you know what Comey will say: The reason we have FISA (in theory at least) is to empower the judiciary to prevent the feds from launching ill-advised, poorly founded counterintelligence investigations. In this case a FISA judge reviewed the FBI’s application and signed off on a warrant. If Barr wants to blow up Russiagate retroactively, it won’t be enough to nuke Comey and Strzok and even Rod Rosenstein, who approved applications for surveillance. He’ll need to nuke the judgment of the FISA court, too.
And he’ll need to contend with this point:
I see we're still doing that thing where we pretend it was bonkers for counterintelligence to investigate campaign officials with ties to Russia at a time when Russian intelligence was attempting to influence the campaigns.
— Friendly Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) April 10, 2019
Comey’s point at its most basic is that we allow police to conduct surveillance with court oversight because sometimes there really are bad guys — spies, even — who need to be stopped. That’s what he claims happened with Russiagate. Barr seems to think, although he won’t clearly say so, that this was more of a partisan operation by Obama’s administration to keep tabs on Trump’s campaign. That’s the difference between “surveillance” and “spying.” We’ll see what the IG says.
Comey: "I really don't know what (Barr's) talking about" with "spying" claims pic.twitter.com/KjnjcI84x1
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) April 12, 2019