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 host John Berman asked former FBI general counsel James Baker: “Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign as the attorney general suggested?” Baker didn’t initially say no, but rather objected that the word “spy” has negative connotations.
Baker then seemed to switch the question from whether spying occurred to its intent, saying: “There was no intention by myself or anybody else I’m aware of to intrude or do activities with respect to the campaign.” 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 “in order to gather political intelligence to find out what the political strategies were.” The FBI was only interested in what the campaign was up to regarding Russia.
There’s a very big difference between saying “I didn’t spy” and saying “I didn’t spy for inappropriate reasons.” The former is a denial, the latter is all but an admission. Baker asserted there was no spying done to gather information on Trump’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 – imprecisely claiming his wires had been tapped at Trump Tower – 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 “not for inappropriate reasons” 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 “look into whether or not the FBI, DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump campaign for political purposes.” Those last three words, with italic emphasis added below, have had quite the workout ever since.
“To your knowledge,” Baker was asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) in an October 2018 closed-door Capitol Hill interview, “did the FBI or DOJ ever investigate the Trump campaign, quote, for political purposes?” Raskin also asked Baker, in the same interview by joint House committees on the judiciary and on government oversight and reform, “To your knowledge, did President Obama or anyone in his White House ever, quote, ‘demand or request’ that the DOJ or FBI, quote, ‘infiltrate or surveil’ the Trump campaign for, quote, ‘political purposes?’” “No” and “no” 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, “Do you have any reason to believe that the Obama White House ever interfered with the FBI’s handling of either the Clinton or Trump investigations for political purposes?” 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: “I know that we never investigated the Trump campaign for political purposes.”
“Has the FBI or DOJ ever investigated the Trump campaign or the Trump presidency for political purposes?” FBI agent Peter Strzok was asked by Democratic staffer Janet Kim June 27, 2018. “Certainly not for political purposes,” he replied – and perhaps realizing how obvious that sounded, added, “I am not, by that answer, implying that there is or is not any other lawful predicated investigation.”
Evidence that the FBI’s answers to such questions are themselves political – aimed at protecting the bureau’s conduct during the Russia investigation – was provided in testimony Trisha Anderson gave last Aug. 31 to the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. Baker’s No. 2, the FBI’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: “Have you ever been a part of any DOJ or FBI investigation conducted for a political purpose?” Anderson’s answer was “No.” Kim went on: “Are you aware of the FBI ever placing spies in a U.S. political campaign during your time at the FBI?” “No,” Anderson said.
Notice, however, what Kim forgot with that second question: the words for political purposes. That oversight opened the door to detailed questions about FBI espionage once it was the Republicans’ turn again. Ryan Breitenbach, senior counsel for the Judiciary Committee majority, did the questioning. “You 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,” Breitenbach said. “What’s your definition of a spy? Let me make it easier. Does a spy, in your mind, include a human confidential source?”
“No,” 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 hasn’t used spies.
Breitenbach became more specific: “Does a spy include an undercover FBI employee?” At this point he had Anderson at a loss: “I don’t know,” she answered.
If she didn’t know whether undercover FBI employees ever counted as spies, how is it she had been able to deny there were any? “I mean,” Breitenbach pressed, “you answered ‘no’ to the question was there ever a spy placed –”
“Right, so for two reasons.” Anderson had regained her footing—but in a way that revealed more than it concealed. “First,” she said, “the word ‘spy’ did not seem commensurate with what I understood had been done in this particular case,” as if a spy is not a spy if he doesn’t use his shoe-phone. “And the other thing was the verb, the use of the verb ‘place’ a spy or ‘place’ a source within a campaign,” Anderson said. “To 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 source” — that would be informant Stefan Halper — “that has been discussed in the media at some length beyond Christopher Steele.”
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 “network of sources.” She merely objected to the verb: The network wasn’t “placed” in the campaign, Anderson insisted, because their sources “already had campaign contacts.”
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 isn’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 counsel’s office were involved in decisions about when confidential human sources had to be let go. “I’m not aware of any such instances,” Anderson said. And then she elaborated perhaps longer than intended: “Our 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.”
“You mentioned double-agent operations,” said the Republican staff lawyer. “It sounds like your office might give legal advice when an issue arose from an actual operational issue?”
“Correct,” 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.
© RealClearInvestigations.com Used with permission.