Fact-checking Bill Barr’s comments on the Russia investigation IG report
During an interview Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr spoke on MSNBC at length about the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Here’s a look at several claims Barr made over Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants into Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide, as well as allegations Barr made of spying against the Trump campaign and bias from the FBI.
Barr repeated one of the President’s main talking points when he claimed the FBI under the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign. Barr said, “I think wiring people up to go in and talk to people and make recordings of their conversations is spying.”
Facts First: While the FISA court did authorize surveillance of Page, the report does not provide evidence that the FBI had its informants wear a wire to record conversations with Page or anyone else. FBI Director Christopher Wray has also pushed back on Barr’s characterization of spying.
In May, Wray told a Senate panel that spying is “not the term I would use,” adding, “I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes.” He reiterated that stance in a Monday interview on ABC.
“Again, different people have different colloquial terms,” Wray said, “but we use terms like ‘investigation’ and ‘surveillance.'”
According to the DOJ, electronic surveillance under FISA “is defined to include the acquisition by an electronic, mechanical, or other surveillance device of the contents of any wire communication to or from a person in the United States, without the consent of any party thereto, if such acquisition occurs within the United States ….” Such electronic surveillance is legal and usually court-sanctioned, unlike spying, which has an illicit connotation.
Barr in the past has defended his use of the word, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee in May that ” ‘spying’ is a good English word that in fact doesn’t have synonyms because it is the broadest word incorporating really all forms of covert intelligence collection.”
In his interview, Barr claimed that there were “very serious abuses of FISA that occurred” during the FBI’s investigation into Russia meddling.
Facts First: The IG report outlines many “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the FISA applications, and one potentially criminal altering of a document by a low-level FBI lawyer. But the report did not state that there were “abuses” in the FISA process, and never accused FBI officials of intentionally manipulating the FISA process or acting out of political bias.
The report lists seven of these omissions and inaccuracies in the first FISA application for Page, including leaving out statements George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign aide, made to someone working with the FBI, along with other statements and information. In total, the inspector general’s report details 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four separate FISA applications on Page.
The report does not outline any “abuses” of the FISA process that Barr alleges. Instead it points out errors made in the applications. The word “abuses” has a certain connotation, suggesting willful intent to circumvent rules — however, the report explicitly states that no such intent was found. It appears Barr is going one step further than the DOJ watchdog with his comments.
Bias in the Russia investigation
Upon the report’s release, Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s inspector general, said one of the few things they examined was the motives and explanations behind the opening of the investigation. However, in his interview, Barr claimed the IG “hasn’t decided the issue of improper motive.”
Facts First: The issue of “improper motive” was one of the topics covered in the inspector general’s review. He concluded there was no evidence of bias in specific actions taken by the FBI, including the opening of the Russia investigation and the decision to wiretap Page.
The IG report notes part of its purpose was “to determine whether there was evidence that political bias or other improper considerations affected decision making in Crossfire Hurricane, including the decision to open the investigation.”
Specifically, the report “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page.”
Barr said that there was “not sufficient” evidence for the FBI to use the “very potent” techniques they used during the Russia investigation, including wiretaps and electronic surveillance.
“I think the (Justice) Department has a rule of reason, which is, at the end of the day, is what you’re relying on sufficiently powerful to justify the techniques you’re using? And the question there is, how strong is the evidence? How sensitive is the activity you’re looking at? And what are the alternatives? And I think when you step back here and say, what was this all based on? It’s not sufficient.”
Facts First: This is a matter of opinion. The FISA Court approved the FBI warrants and Horowitz’s report noted that the opening of the investigation was valid. However, the report notes that the FISA applications contained errors and omissions. It’s unknown if the court would have approved corrected applications.
While the report noted that the FBI had sufficient evidence to open the investigation, it did not “speculate whether Department officials would have authorized the FBI to seek to use FISA authority had they been made aware” of the errors and omissions in the applications and reports.
Horowitz noted that there is a “low threshold” when it comes to opening investigations, per the Justice Department’s guidelines, and stated that the information the FBI had satisfied this threshold.
All FISA applications were properly approved in the corresponding court. And while there were multiple errors and omissions in these applications, Horowitz report refused to weigh into whether or not these errors were enough to reject the warrants.
Conspiracies about the “deep state”
In the interview, Barr raised the possibility that the Obama administration “used the apparatus of the state” to spy on the Trump campaign and potentially affect the outcome of the 2016 election.
“The greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government use the apparatus of the state, principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies, both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election,” Barr said, when asked why he believed there wasn’t enough cause for the FBI to open the Russia probe in July 2016.
Facts First: Barr is playing into conspiracy theories about the “deep state.” Trump has also embraced these theories, and even once claimed that Obama personally ordered the surveillance of his campaign. These allegations are not based in reality. In fact, the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to keep the Russia probe secret before voters went to the polls in 2016, as not to affect the outcome of the election.
There is no evidence that the FBI intended to use the Russia investigation to change the outcome of the 2016 election. The inspector general report concluded that FBI officials weren’t motivated by political bias against Trump when they opened the investigation and applied for FISA warrants against Page.
The investigation wasn’t publicly confirmed by the FBI until March 2017, months after the election. Former FBI Director James Comey, who oversaw the Russia probe until he was fired, said they didn’t announce the investigation, or take overt steps like interviewing witnesses, because they didn’t want to tip off the Trump campaign associates that they were being investigated for their ties to Russia.
It wasn’t a difficult decision for the FBI to stay silent about the Russia investigation before the 2016 election “because it was far too early” in the investigation, Comey told ABC News last year. “We didn’t know what we had, and we didn’t want to tip them off that we were looking at them,” he added.
Despite the FBI’s efforts to keep things under wraps, there were sporadic news reports about the investigation before the election, but only a sliver in comparison to the report about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the FBI’s criminal investigation into her private email server.
Still, Barr’s concerns about politicized intelligence agencies aren’t without historical merit.
Previous presidents used law enforcement and intelligence agencies to investigate their political opponents. There’s evidence that the CIA spied on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the IRS to investigate his opponents. President Richard Nixon infamously leaned on federal law enforcement, leading to his resignation in 1974.