Really? Americans might be curious as to precisely when it became “reasonable” and “totally normal” for the FBI to use undercover agents to penetrate presidential campaigns. James Comey stuck his foot in his mouth with this exchange in last night’s CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper, although it may be somewhat more defensible than it appears (via Twitchy):
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) May 10, 2019
COOPER: You said it’s not spying. Why do you think Attorney General Barr used the word spying, which is obviously a word that the president has used, as well?
COMEY: I can’t explain it. I mean, the only explanation I can think of is he used it because the president uses it, which is really disappointing. He knows better than that and knows that the FBI conducts electronic surveillance by going to federal judges and getting warrants based on probable cause.
COOPER: But sending an investigator undercover to meet with somebody who is connected to the campaign, they claimed he was later on just a coffee boy, that is an extreme step, no?
COMEY: No, it’s a reasonable — that was the guy, Papadopoulos, who was the subject of the information we got from the Australians, that he had talked to the Russians.
COOPER: Did you sign off on the investigator going?
COMEY: I don’t remember talking about that particular step with my team. I knew they were trying to see if they could check it out. That’s a totally normal step, see if you can get somebody close to the person and see if they’ll confirm what we heard from the Australians.
Former CIA and NYPD intel analyst Buck Sexton calls this explanation “utterly insane”:
This is utterly insane. Acting like a single sourced, unvetted tip from some foreign rando overseas is *enough to justify FBI spying on a US presidential campaign* is totally bonkers.
Comey is a sanctimonious fraud. And the walls are closing in on him. https://t.co/ELB2kJKVFd
— Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) May 10, 2019
Just how “totally normal” and “reasonable” could this be? I suspect Comey was trying to answer about investigative techniques regardless of investigative context. If an allied intelligence agency passed along information that an American was acting as a conduit for a hostile intelligence service, what investigative techniques would be normal and reasonable? Without regard to other circumstances, using an undercover agent to probe the suspect’s contacts and intent would be a “normal” and “reasonable” investigative technique. The FBI and the CIA undoubtedly make great use of that technique along with others, such as (ahem) surveillance and records trawling, using appropriate warrants.
Context matters, though, especially in this case. Papadapoulous wasn’t just some random US person; he was a second-tier advisor to a presidential campaign, one from the party opposed to the current administration. What might be “totally normal” and “reasonable” under other circumstances would look very strange in these circumstances. It would look like political interference if it turned out to be baseless, especially if some of the agents involved texted their disgust with said candidate on a fairly regular basis.
In this case, it’s “reasonable” to ask what intermediate options the FBI had to accomplish its mission. If the FBI worried that a junior advisor to a presidential campaign might be currying favor with Russian intel, wouldn’t the first step be to warn the candidate first? Junior advisers are disposable, after all, and if the mission is to protect the American political system from Russian penetration, that would be the most direct way of accomplishing it. The fact that the FBI didn’t take that step certainly raises the question as to what mission the FBI had in mind. At least thus far, it’s an open question as to whether that mission was “totally normal” and “reasonable.”