Barr: "Government power was used to spy on American citizens"

Looks like William Barr still has no issues using the s-word to describe Operation Crossfire Hurricane. Despite criticism over calling the FISA-warrant surveillance on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “spying,” Barr insists that’s exactly what it was in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Barr wants to develop more specific rules for the circumstances which gave rise to it in order to ensure any future probes are properly predicated:

Attorney General William Barr said his review of the origins of the Russia investigation is focused on U.S. intelligence gathering before the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened its formal inquiry in July 2016 and could lead to rule changes for counterintelligence investigations of political campaigns.

“Government power was used to spy on American citizens,” Mr. Barr told The Wall Street Journal, in his first interview since taking office in February. “I can’t imagine any world where we wouldn’t take a look and make sure that was done properly.”

He added: “Just like we need to ensure that foreign actors don’t influence the outcome of our elections, we need to ensure that the government doesn’t use its powers to put a thumb on the scale.”

As before, Barr argues that the term is not meant pejoratively; it merely makes a connection to FISA’s counterintelligence purposes. Former FBI officials James Comey and James Baker insist that the word “spying” is wrong and that the FBI does not “spy” on people, a rather interesting argument considering that the FBI is the only domestic agency chartered to conduct counterespionage in the US. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is not a normal law-enforcement tool, but specifically for the FBI to conduct espionage on US persons who are supposed to be conclusively shown to act as foreign agents.

Operation Crossfire Hurricane was not a domestic law-enforcement investigation, as Comey and Baker hint. It was a counterintelligence operation, which is why the FBI had to seek a FISA warrant in the first place to surveil Page. Had it been a law-enforcement operation, they could have sought warrants under normal law-enforcement functions, but they would have had to show probable cause that Page was part of criminal activity. The FBI sought a FISA warrant instead in order to conduct counterespionage surveillance, which in any practical terms is spying.

The utter lack of any connection between Page and indictments against anyone in this operation suggests that the FBI got it wrong on Page. Their FISA warrant’s reliance on the Steele dossier suggests that they might have cut corners to get it in the first place. It doesn’t require a genius to see that, at the very least, the FBI and Department of Justice need to rethink their compliance procedures after this embarrassing failure. The use of the word “spying” is the least of our worries, especially since it happens to accurately convey what the FBI did, whether or not it was properly predicated.

None of this presumes a political motive either, although the risks there are apparent enough. Barr mentions the risk of an administration putting its “thumb on the scale” in an election but doesn’t allege that’s what happened here. The FBI could very well have made a series of honest errors and overzealously pursued a FISA warrant, too. However, that’s still a good reason to investigate every aspect of the decisions that led to Operation Crossfire Hurricane and all of the actions within it — so those mistakes never get made again.

Kim Strassel hails the appointment of John Durham to find those answers, and the opportunity to resolve this credibly and with finality:

The Connecticut prosecutor is a straight arrow. Even Chris Murphy, Mr. Durham’s home state Democratic senator, praised him this week as “apolitical,” “serious,” and “fair.” In a 37-year tenure at the Justice Department, Mr. Durham has served six presidents. Federal records show he has never donated to a political candidate. He’s the antithesis of a showboater; he doesn’t do news conferences and he doesn’t do leaks.

Mr. Durham has also specialized in investigations into government actors—from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Central Intelligence Agency to political figures. The record shows that he doesn’t bring prosecutions lightly, but also isn’t afraid to hold the powerful to account. I’ve confirmed he’ll be joined by the highly respected Nora Dannehy. Ms. Dannehy was herself once the U.S. attorney in Connecticut and in 2008 led the probe into the George W. Bush administration’s controversial firing of U.S. attorneys. She only recently returned to Justice from private practice and is working as counsel in Mr. Durham’s office.

The esteemed duo can give the public confidence that Justice and FBI actions are getting a fair and thorough look.

Perhaps we can all pledge to accept Durham’s eventual findings. If Durham finds nothing amiss or just some poor judgment calls, then critics should support those findings and any efforts to make FBI and DoJ guidelines less ambiguous. If Durham finds more than that, though, perhaps defenders of Comey and Baker will pledge to pursue that to its full conclusion.