After two-plus years of Donald Trump’s presidency, senior U.S. officials going after the FBI can feel like just another Wednesday.
But former counterintelligence officials were still struck by Attorney General Bill Barr’s suggestion this week that FBI leaders intentionally spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign.
As attorney general, Barr has ultimate authority over the bureau, which, in turn, leads U.S. counterintelligence operations.
“He as the attorney general, he’s the boss of bosses. He’s the boss over the FBI and all the other DOJ agencies,” said Dave Gomez, a retired FBI counterterrorism executive.
Former FBI officials told TPM that Barr’s testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee was inaccurate and irresponsible. Tossing around a loaded term like “spying” further erodes the domestic and international perception of the FBI at a moment when the U.S. is facing acute counterintelligence threats from China, Russia and other foreign nations, they said.
“Political influence is one aspect of the totality of a [foreign] influence operation,” Bob Anderson, a former top official at the FBI’s counterintelligence division, told TPM.
“These influence operations are causing infighting between the people that run the government, the people that protect the country and so on and so forth,” Anderson continued. “And if you’re the ‘bad guy’ on the other end of this, you love it because it’s causing confusion.”
Barr triggered a firestorm Wednesday by saying point-blank that he believed “spying did occur” during the 2016 campaign. Pressed on the point by Democratic lawmakers, Barr softened his wording to possible “unauthorized surveillance,” and said he simply wanted to ensure that no such thing happened. He said he had “no specific evidence” available to support his claims.
The comments were catnip to Trump, who maintains that the Russia probe was an illegitimate plot hatched by “deep state” FBI officials to derail his campaign. Barr’s comments were “very accurate” and “absolutely true,” Trump said Thursday, insisting again that “illegal spying” occurred.
Language is key here. The FBI did look into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia as part of their counterintelligence investigation into that country’s interference in the 2016 election. But they were authorized to do so.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted FBI agents a warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page’s communications, and did so after he left the campaign. Top officials at both the Justice Department and FBI are involved in signing off on these warrant applications.
Court-authorized surveillance is not the same as “spying,” which implies illegal freelance activity, ex-intelligence officials say.
Gomez echoed former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in calling the term a “pejorative” in the law enforcement community.
“I think he needs to be more careful and judicious in the way he testifies,” Gomez told TPM. “I can say that myself and probably a lot of former and active agents took offense at the suggestion we would commit essentially an illegal act—engaging in domestic spying as opposed to a legitimate court-ordered surveillance, which is what it was.”
“So he needs to be more careful about how he talks about all of this because the FBI is already on the ropes,” Gomez said.
Collapsing these distinctions paints an overly simplistic, nefarious picture of counterintelligence investigations that further undermines morale at the agency Trump has personally targeted since 2016, ex-officials said. They also come at a moment where the U.S.—and Trump himself—are facing an onslaught of foreign counterintelligence operations.
In January of this year, current DNI Dan Coats testified that foreign nations including Russia, China and Iran are likely already planning to interfere in the 2020 presidential election.
Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia in particular would focus on “aggravating” social and racial tensions via social media influence campaigns in order to further sow discord in the U.S. FBI Director Chris Wray testified that these campaigns present a “particularly vexing and challenging problem.”
Then there are the apparent recent efforts to breach security at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. The FBI is investigating whether a Chinese national arrested there in late March was a spy for China’s intelligence agencies. She was found with multiple cellphones, an external hard drive, and nine USB thumb drives, including one loaded with malware.
In a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed, former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan called Mar-a-Lago a “counterintelligence nightmare.”
“Every hostile intelligence service worthy of the name must have eyes and ears at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump resorts,” Soufan wrote.
For FBI agents trying to root out foreign government spying, hearing their boss accuse his own staffers of spying “takes an internal toll,” Gomez said.
“It’s a lot of work to figure these things out,” he continued. “If you’re not allowed to investigate because your government doesn’t trust you, you start to think, ‘Why bother?’”
Anderson, the former FBI counterintelligence official, said it was “disturbing” that Barr didn’t think through the impact of making out-of-context public comments about the FBI’s Russia probe.
“It doesn’t help America or any part of these investigations because it makes people start questioning everything that’s going on,” Anderson said.