At first blush, this NBC report over the weekend looks like a rehash of a Fox News scoop from ten days earlier. Attorney General William Barr has approved the expansion of the investigation into Operation Crossfire Hurricane by US Attorney John Durham, including into any Department of Justice actions taken in 2017, as John Roberts reported. However, it’s not just Robert Mueller or the DoJ that might be on the hot seat. Barr has given Durham the green light to investigate intelligence-community leaders, including former DNI James Clapper and former CIA director John Brennan:
A review launched by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has expanded significantly amid concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis, multiple current and former officials told NBC News.
The prosecutor conducting the review, Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, has expressed his intent to interview a number of current and former intelligence officials involved in examining Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, Brennan told NBC News.
Barr almost certainly approved this expansion and direction because of what Durham has already found. And what Durham has already found, NBC notes, has intelligence operatives lawyering up:
Durham has also requested to talk to CIA analysts involved in the intelligence assessment of Russia’s activities, prompting some of them to hire lawyers, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter. And there is tension between the CIA and the Justice Department over what classified documents Durham can examine, two people familiar with the matter said.
With Barr’s approval, Durham has expanded his staff and the timeframe under scrutiny, according to a law enforcement official directly familiar with the matter. And he is now looking into conduct past Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a Trump administration official said.
The point about hiring lawyers is especially interesting. The DoJ made sure to note at the beginning that Durham was conducting an internal review, not a criminal investigation, although there was nothing to prevent it from developing into one. The DoJ does not comment on the existence of criminal investigations until they either close one or get an indictment — with a couple of notable James Comey-related exceptions — and they’re not talking now, either. These developments, however, make it look like Durham has turned the corner from review to full-blown criminal investigation. At least that’s the impression that some of the people involved must have.
NBC notes that Durham’s assignment always left that potential path open, a path which was not directly open to Inspector General Michael Horowitz:
In a May 31 interview with CBS News, Barr said Horowitz “doesn’t have the power to compel testimony, he doesn’t have the power really to investigate beyond the current cast of characters at the Department of Justice. His ability to get information from former officials or from other agencies outside the department is very limited.”
Remember, however, that a criminal probe — if that is in fact what Durham is conducting — is not an indictment … at least not yet. One enduring quality of this scandal is that it hasn’t paid off in either direction so far. It found no evidence of collusion by Donald Trump and his team, and up to now hasn’t dug up evidence of a “deep state” plot either, although of course both Durham and Horowitz have yet to publicize their conclusions. Comey and Andrew McCabe got fired, Peter Strzok got bounced too, and the latter two are suing over their terminations.
Still, the interest in Clapper and Brennan seems pretty noteworthy. Durham will need to have his ducks in a row before deposing both men, who have been pretty slippery in public comments on a wide range of issues. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are still angry over Clapper’s flat-out lies in testimony about domestic surveillance, which cost Clapper absolutely nothing in that instance. If either of the two men think Durham will let them get away with that in their “interviews,” however, maybe they’d better lawyer up too.