By Eric Felten
While Washington pols and pundits angrily debate who counts as a spy, and whether any such exotic creatures have ever been employed by the FBI, new evidence is emerging that the FBI not only uses spies, but has done so extensively, including in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Last Thursday, CNN hostÂ John BermanÂ askedÂ former FBI general counsel James Baker: â€œDid the FBI spy on the Trump campaign as the attorney general suggested?â€ Baker didnâ€™t initially say no, but rather objected that the word â€œspyâ€ has negative connotations.
Baker then seemed to switch the question from whether spying occurred to its intent, saying: â€œThere was no intention by myself or anybody else Iâ€™m aware of to intrude or do activities with respect to the campaign.â€ Then he continued his sentence with a clause that significantly modified even that claim. There was no intrusion of the Trump campaign, he said, done â€œin order to gather political intelligence to find out what the political strategies were.â€ The FBI was only interested in what the campaign was up to regarding Russia.
Thereâ€™s a very big difference between saying â€œI didnâ€™t spyâ€ and saying â€œI didnâ€™t spy for inappropriate reasons.â€ The former is a denial, the latter is all but an admission. Baker asserted there was no spying done to gather information on Trumpâ€™s campaign strategies. Which could very well mean there was spying, just not any for the narrow reason given.
When President Trump raised the specter of spying in March 2017 â€“ imprecisely claiming his wires had been tapped at Trump Tower â€“ he was widely criticized as a liar and conspiracy monger for suggesting that Obama administration officials would have spied on a rival campaign. Now that it is clear such surveillance did occur, those deniers are trying to defend and play down those efforts.
Defenders of the Trump-Russia probe have come to rely heavily on variations of the â€œnot for inappropriate reasonsâ€ clause, not only in their public comments but in closed-door interviews with witnesses. They have also tried to change the terms of debate by focusing on three words from a tweet Trump sent a year ago demanding that the Justice Department â€œlook into whether or not the FBI, DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump campaign for political purposes.â€ Those last three words, with italic emphasis added below, have had quite the workout ever since.
â€œTo your knowledge,â€ Baker was asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) in an October 2018 closed-door Capitol Hill interview, â€œdid the FBI or DOJ ever investigate the Trump campaign, quote,Â for political purposes?â€ Raskin also asked Baker, in the same interview by joint House committees on the judiciary and on government oversight and reform, â€œTo your knowledge, did President Obama or anyone in his White House ever, quote, â€˜demand or requestâ€™ that the DOJ or FBI, quote, â€˜infiltrate or surveilâ€™ the Trump campaignÂ for, quote, â€˜political purposes?â€™â€ â€œNoâ€ and â€œnoâ€ Baker was able to respond. The assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Bill Priestap, was asked in his Capitol Hill interview June 5, 2018, â€œDo you have any reason to believe that the Obama White House ever interfered with the FBIâ€™s handling of either the Clinton or Trump investigationsÂ for political purposes?â€ He answered, “No, no” Asked in a congressional interview Dec. 7, 2018 whether the FBI or DOJ ever investigated the Trump campaign for political purposes, former FBI Director James Comey was definitive: â€œI know that we never investigated the Trump campaignÂ for political purposes.â€
â€œHas the FBI or DOJ ever investigated the Trump campaign or the Trump presidencyÂ for political purposes?â€ FBI agent Peter Strzok was asked by Democratic staffer Janet Kim June 27, 2018. â€œCertainly not for political purposes,â€ he replied â€“ and perhaps realizing how obvious that sounded, added, â€œI am not, by that answer, implying that there is or is not any other lawful predicated investigation.â€
Evidence that the FBIâ€™s answers to such questions are themselves political â€“ aimed at protecting the bureauâ€™s conduct during the Russia investigation â€“ was provided in testimony Trisha Anderson gave last Aug. 31Â to the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. Bakerâ€™s No. 2, the FBIâ€™s Principal Deputy General Counsel, Anderson had since left the bureau to join the law firm Covington & Burling. The questioning was done behind closed doors. The transcript has not been released, but pieces of it have been reported on; a copy of the full transcript has been obtained by RealClearInvestigations.
The inevitable question eventually was asked by Kim: â€œHave you ever been a part of any DOJ or FBI investigation conducted for a political purpose?â€ Andersonâ€™s answer was â€œNo.â€ Kim went on: â€œAre you aware of the FBI ever placing spies in a U.S. political campaign during your time at the FBI?â€ â€œNo,â€ Anderson said.
Notice, however, what Kim forgot with that second question: the wordsÂ for political purposes. That oversight opened the door to detailed questions about FBI espionage once it was the Republicansâ€™ turn again. Ryan Breitenbach, senior counsel for the Judiciary Committee majority, did the questioning. â€œYou previously indicated in a prior round that there, to your knowledge, was never a spy that was placed on the Trump campaign or anywhere in the Trump orbit,â€ Breitenbach said. â€œWhat’s your definition of a spy? Let me make it easier. Does a spy, in your mind, include a human confidential source?â€
â€œNo,â€ said Anderson. So if the FBI employed a confidential human source to gather intel, that would not be spying, and FBI officials can claim under oath that the bureau hasnâ€™t used spies.
Breitenbach became more specific: â€œDoes a spy include an undercover FBI employee?â€ At this point he had Anderson at a loss: â€œI don’t know,â€ she answered.
If she didnâ€™t know whether undercover FBI employees ever counted as spies, how is it she had been able to deny there were any? â€œI mean,â€ Breitenbach pressed, â€œyou answered â€˜noâ€™ to the question was there ever a spy placed â€“”
â€œRight, so for two reasons.â€ Anderson had regained her footingâ€”but in a way that revealed more than it concealed. â€œFirst,â€ she said, â€œthe word â€˜spyâ€™ did not seem commensurate with what I understood had been done in this particular case,â€ as if a spy is not a spy if he doesnâ€™t use his shoe-phone. â€œAnd the other thing was the verb, the use of the verb â€˜placeâ€™ a spy or â€˜placeâ€™ a source within a campaign,â€ Anderson said. â€œTo my knowledge, the FBI did not place anybody within a campaign but, rather, relied upon its network of sources, some of whom already had campaign contacts, including the sourceâ€ â€” that would be informant Stefan Halper â€” Â â€œthat has been discussed in the media at some length beyond Christopher Steele.â€
In her apparent effort to euphemize her way out of the possibility she had been caught in erroneous testimony, Anderson revealed that the FBI used not just a few confidential sources against the Trump campaign, but a â€œnetwork of sources.â€ She merely objected to the verb: The network wasnâ€™t â€œplacedâ€ in the campaign, Anderson insisted, because their sources â€œalready had campaign contacts.â€
RealClearInvestigations reached out to Anderson for comment, but she did not respond.
Later in her testimony Anderson let slip another piece of information undermining claims that the FBI isnâ€™t in the spy game. The shop where she worked at the bureau is in charge of giving legal guidance for FBI activities. She was asked about whether she or her fellow lawyers in the general counselâ€™s office were involved in decisions about when confidential human sources had to be let go. â€œI’m not aware of any such instances,â€ Anderson said. And then she elaborated perhaps longer than intended: â€œOur office might and actually routinely provided legal advice on uses, investigative uses of sources overseas, for example, on double-agent operations is a good example of a circumstance that might implicate legal considerations.â€
â€œYou mentioned double-agent operations,â€ said the Republican staff lawyer. â€œIt sounds like your office might give legal advice when an issue arose from an actual operational issue?â€
â€œCorrect,â€ Anderson said.
So for all the denials that the FBI uses spies, the truth seems to be that the bureau not only runs secret agents, but double agents.
Given the difficulties of double agent operations, success with them should be a source of pride, not shame. As long, that is, as they are not done for political purposes.
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