Things seem to be moving quickly now. It has been a remarkable few weeks in American history. Momentum is building toward uncovering the distasteful possibility that the targeting of a U.S. presidential campaign was actually a political operation, fostered at the highest levels of government, masquerading as an FBI counterintelligence investigation.
Attorney General William Barr has signaled that his interest in examining the origins of the investigation into the Trump campaign extends beyond whether the FBI operated “by the book,” as former FBI Director James Comey asserts. Barr also wants to understand the role that the larger intelligence community, or IC, may have played in all of this.
Barr has thrown punches that have left an interesting mix of characters with a standing eight count. Certain eyes around D.C. are a little glassy right now.
Barr’s words and actions are telling. First, he raised the concern that the Trump campaign was “spied” upon. His use of the word “spying” appears more calculated than casual. The wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed is also telling. “The FBI doesn’t spy” became the sputtering counter-refrain of those trying to mask their nervousness.
It’s a fair point that’s beside the point. The FBI is charged with acting under strict legal restrictions and court orders. Spying is not a term traditionally associated with those activities.
But it also misses the point Barr appears to be making. The IC does spy; that’s what they do. Barr may have been referring less to the FBI and more to the IC’s possible murky involvement.
This seems to be validated by Barr’s second haymaker in as many weeks: his appointment of a surrogate investigator, U.S. Attorney John Durham. Why would the attorney general add a third investigation to those under way by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz and U.S. Attorney John Huber? Because those investigations are focused on the FBI. Durham’s assignment is not similarly constrained; his marching orders appear broader.
Through Durham, Barr can start dusting for fingerprints across the government, not just the FBI. The squirming has begun.
In just the past week, we’ve seen a rush to comment by the former directors of national intelligence and the CIA. The FBI’s former general counsel has chimed in publicly and, of course, fired FBI Director Comey has been on a media offensive, practicing character assassination as a strategy with Barr among those in his crosshairs.
Each appears to be anxious about his own role in handling the controversial Steele dossier from the Trump-Russia investigation, and so there is some elbowing under the basket to get optimum positioning. And who can blame them? The attorney general has stated that he is going to focus particularly on the dossier’s exploitation, and specifically on the actions of the leadership of those agencies.
Interestingly, this establishes these leaders as principal witnesses in Durham’s inquiry. In essence they are using their easy access to public media platforms to coordinate and communicate their stories among themselves.
Ordinarily, this type of witness activity is troubling, if not borderline obstructive when done privately. In this case, Durham may be licking his chops as a prosecutor since a certain element of finger-pointing among the principals has emerged.
Each also is dealing with an elephant that’s not just in the room but sitting uncomfortably in their laps. Christopher Steele’s dossier is clearly a Russian intelligence operation (“active measure” in IC-speak) that took advantage of a cooperative outreach by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
If these IC leaders didn’t recognize it as such, then it truly was amateur hour at the top. The more troubling scenario would be if each made a conscious decision to ignore the obvious Russian interference attempt and, instead, wring political value out of the dossier.
This is a key area that deserves Durham’s attention. After all, this Russian active measures operation was used to further an FBI counterintelligence investigation against American citizens, and even secure a court order to electronically intercept former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The American people shouldn’t feel badly if all this seems confusing. Even experienced counterintelligence investigators are scratching their heads. Former FBI general counsel to Comey, James Baker, added to the confusion last week with some lawyer language — that the FBI “took the dossier seriously, but not necessarily literally.” Say what?
IG Horowitz likely will take note of that statement as he finalizes his review of possible abuses by Comey and his team of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process. It seems doubtful that a FISA court judge would have granted an electronic surveillance order had he been told the FBI believed Page was acting as an agent of Russia — but not literally so.
Barr also wants to understand the role of CIA confidential sources, or “assets,” that were cozied up next to Page and another former Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos. Both were announced as Trump campaign members the same week in March 2016, and almost immediately began attracting attention from an interesting cast of characters associated with the agency long before the FBI counterintelligence investigation was launched that July.
The CIA has its own set of restrictions about the use of assets against Americans, and this deserves Durham’s focus as well. Former CIA Director John Brennan has commented on his belief in the sufficiency of FBI predication to investigate the Trump campaign but has said little about the CIA’s role in all of this. Durham will want to make sure that CIA asset activity didn’t somehow help create that predication.
IC leaders aren’t used to being held to account by the Justice Department, and their oversight by Congress generally is mild. Theirs is a comfortable world, obfuscated and kept mysterious by the liberal use of their classified-information shield. The demonization of the Attorney General Barr has begun — a sign that he is probably on the right track. And the IC leaders are on notice.
Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, LLC.