(CNN)Attorney General William Barr isn’t shy about making big claims when it comes to the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Last month, in testimony on Capitol Hill, Barr said that “spying did occur” on President Donald Trump’s campaign, adding: “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.” Under questioning, again on Capitol Hill, earlier this month, Barr refused to walk back the claim. “I’m not going to abjure the use of the word ‘spying,'” he told Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D). “I think, you know, my first job was in CIA. And I don’t think the word ‘spying’ has any pejorative connotation at all.”
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And now, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Barr is going even further. “Government power was used to spy on American citizens,” Barr told the Journal. “I can’t imagine any world where we wouldn’t take a look and make sure that was done properly.” In that same interview, Barr also said:”If we’re worried about foreign influence, for the very same reason we should be worried about whether government officials abuse their power and put their thumb on the scale. I’m not saying that happened but it’s something we have to look at.”And, of the so-called Steele dossier: “It’s a very unusual situation to have opposition research like that. And to use that to conduct counter intelligence against an American political campaign is a strange — would be strange development.”Read MoreBarr’s claims — or insinuations — run directly counter to what we know to be the facts about the origins and conduct of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation.First, there’s the “spying” claim. What we know is that the FBI sought a warrant to allow them to conduct surveillance against Carter Page, a one-time foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign. That request went through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which found that the FBI had probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power. In addition to the first FISA warrant, the surveillance of Page was subsequently re-approved three more times. (Worth noting: The judges who sit on the FISC are all appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts was appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush.)While Barr says he doesn’t put any “pejorative” meaning on the word “spying,” the head of the FBI — Christopher Wray — clearly does. Wray told a Senate committee earlier this month that “spying” was “not the term I would use,” adding: “Lots of people have different colloquial phrases. I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes. To me the key question is making sure that it’s done by the book consistent with our lawful authorities.”Asked earlier this week about Wray’s comments, Trump himself said this: “I didn’t understand his answer. Because I thought the attorney general answered it perfectly. So I certainly didn’t understand that answer. I thought it was a ridiculous answer.”So, there’s that.Then there is Barr’s statement that the Steele dossier might have been used “to conduct counter intelligence against an American political campaign.” What we now of the origin of the FBI probe into Russia interference in the 2016 election is that it began in the summer of that year — after WikiLeaks began publishing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. That move prompted Australian officials to reach out to American intelligence officials to alert them that one of their diplomats had engaged in a conversation with one-time Trump adviser George Papadopoulos earlier in the year in which Papadopoulos had said that he knew the Russians had dirt on Clinton. And from there, the investigation began.The Steele dossier — an opposition research document put together by a former British spy and funded by the DNC and Clinton — was not the genesis of the investigation. Portions of the Steele dossier have been independently confirmed by US law enforcement officials although the more salacious parts have not. We know all of that because of testimony — under oath — by former FBI Director James Comey and the Mueller report. The FBI, in its application for a wiretap warrant against Page, referenced that they partially relied on the Steele dossier, and the FISA court still gave permission for the surveillance. Page had discontinued his association with the campaign, for which he was an unpaid outside adviser, by the time the FISA was sought and approved. If Barr has evidence that any or all of what Comey, Mueller and Wray have said is wrong, then it is an absolutely HUGE story. And based on the game he is talking, it seems to suggest he either does or thinks he will by the time the investigation into the investigation concludes. Of course, if Barr is, well, just talking, the damage he is doing is real and lasting — providing cover and fodder for those (including the President of the United States) who believe Trump is the target of a vast “deep state” conspiracy.