Former FBI director James Comey took issue Thursday with Attorney General William Barr’s recent claim that U.S. intelligence agencies “spied” on the Trump campaign.
Comey, addressing a cybersecurity conference in California, drew a distinction between “spying” and the authorized surveillance that was conducted on the Trump campaign.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about so it’s hard for me to comment,” Comey said. “When I hear that kind of language used, it’s concerning, because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. I have never thought of that as spying.”
Comey was responding to Barr’s Wednesday testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, in which the attorney general surprised Democratic lawmakers by stating that the surveillance conducted on the Trump campaign in order to identify possible links to Russia qualified as “spying.”
“I think spying did occur,” Barr told the panel. “But the question is whether it was adequately predicated and I am not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. . . . I am not suggesting those rules were violated, but I think it is important to look at that. And I am not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly.”
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal — it’s a big deal,” he added.
Congressional Democrats have chastised Barr for insinuating that the surveillance conducted on the Trump campaign, which relied in part on a FISA warrant supported by the unsubstantiated Steele dossier, was in some way politically motivated, as many of their Republican colleagues have long alleged. They contend that the counterintelligence investigation, which also relied on confidential informants, was an appropriate response to the threat of Russian election-meddling.
Comey on Thursday acknowledged that, as a two-time attorney general with decades of government experience, Barr is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, but expressed surprise that he would accuse U.S. intelligence agencies of “spying” on a presidential campaign.
“If the attorney general has come to the belief that that should be called spying, wow,” Comey said. “That’s going to require a whole lot of conversations inside the Department of Justice. But I don’t know what he meant.”
Barr told lawmakers Wednesday that he has formed a team to investigate whether the counterintelligence investigation against the Trump campaign was tainted by bias. The team will likely examine the degree to which FBI and Department of Justice officials misled the FISA court about the origins of the Steele dossier, which was commissioned by a firm contracted by the Clinton campaign, in order to obtain a warrant to surveil Carter Page. Page had left the Trump campaign by the time the surveillance began, but the warrant likely entitled authorities to surveil his prior communications with fellow Trump campaign officials.