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Investigating Investigators: Attorney General Barr on a Mission of Revenge

His search for what fits his preconceptions

Attorney General William Barr's zeal to come up with an alternative origin story for why intelligence agencies probed Trump-Russia contacts in the 2016 campaign brings to mind a quote from the Bush administration's insistence that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Richard Deerlove, head of MI6, Britain's intelligence service, on his return to London after a trip to Washington, where he learned of U.S. manipulation of intelligence to fabricate a case for war, gave us a tidy phrase. He said, “The intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy".

That, we'll wager, is what we will see when Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham conclude their investigation. All known accounts of what led U.S.
Attorey General William Barr

intelligence agencies to secretly look into whether the Trump campaign was conspiring with Russians during 2016 are somehow suspect for them. Impatient for the report from his own inspector general, 18 months in the making so far, Barr tapped Durham to run a parallel inquiry.

In Barr, Trump has found an attorney general who wants to prove that the FBI lied about the origins

of its investigation to cover up that it was politically motivated and therefore illegal. He has already decided that the FBI was "spying" and said to Congress,

"I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. I think spying did occur, but the question is whether it was adequately predicated. But I need to explore that".

In conducting his own investigation, he is carrying out the wishes of the president, who hopes Barr will conclude that there was no adequate predicate, that there should have been no investigation by the FBI or Mueller's team in the first place, and several instigators should therefore be indicted. The president tweeted that his campaign "was conclusively spied on", adding "TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!".

Barr apparently wants to know more about the intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia's intervention was engineered to help Trump, that the Russians had "developed a clear preference" for Trump. He wants to know were there disagreements among the analysts about reaching that appraisal? Did bias against Trump lead eve n to fabricating that tilt to prejudice the public against the candidate as a Russian asset? This quest to report back that there was in truth no such favoritism, just a plan to disrupt, will show Barr is working to pacify the president, however falsely, that Russian favoritism was a myth, that there was no slant delegitimizing his election.

imperial presidency

Mr. Barr is an outspoken advocate for presidential power. In what commentators called his audition for the attorney general job, he had written a 19-page memorandum criticizing the Mueller obstruction inquiry as weakening the office and argued that a president could not be investigated while in office. On taking office, he claimed he is protecting the institution of the presidency and not this particular president. Yet two months later in the July 25th conversation with Ukraine's president Zelenskyy, we would see him involved in Trump's mission to press Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

He had already lost public trust — with those who prefer probity anyway — when he undercut the product of the Mueller team's two-year inquiry. He had stepped in front of the report's release with a four-page summation that colored it to the president's benefit, shaping the public's perception to think Trump was exonerated of any obstruction of justice. The damning details in the actual text would go unread when the report itself was released to the public two weeks later. Immediately, Barr was seen as working as the president's lawyer rather than the nation's.

Barr and Durham are in the midst of investigating whether the FBI, CIA, and the Obama administration acted out of bias and abused their power. Trump has even given the attorney general the unprecedented power to declassify whatever he chooses from these agencies, potentially exposing sources, methods, and secrets. The president has made calls to foreign leaders to help the attorney general with Durham's investigation. The pair has traveled together to the United Kingdom and Italy, and reached out to Australia, looking for clues.

Asking foreign intelligence services to come up with dirt about their counterparts in the U.S. risks sowing dissension between the "Five Eyes", the coordinating intel services of the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. A U.K. diplomat said to The Independent, "They are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services". David Laufman at the Justice Department oversaw the early stages of the Russia investigation. He sees what Barr is doing as "weaponization of the department in service of political retribution by the White House and congressional Republicans".

That Barr and Durham are determined to come up with a vast, alternative story is evidenced by the staggering intensity of their quest: A New York Times story reported that the sprawling investigation…

"has grown to include more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence and interviews of about 500 witnesses."

With that much invested, Barr cannot come up empty. Unlike the Mueller report, which was circumspect and scrupulous in not stretching its findings to come to conclusions of wrongdoing, it won't be surprising if Barr comes up with a sheaf of indictments on shaky and suspect grounds, vengeance on behalf of Trump who thinks no candidate or president should ever be investigated again. For The Wall Street Journal, it's all good. Barr "will never have a more important assignment".

creation stories

Barr's inquiry is covering ground already well plowed. The Senate intelligence committee is about to release a definitive and studiously bipartisan report on Russian interference. The House intelligence committee when run by California Republican Devin Nunes issued its highly partisan report a year and a half ago. And then there is the long-awaited report from the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz which is expected "imminently" — possibly out by the time you read this.

Nunes had dedicated what should always be a bipartisan committee to the service of Donald Trump, determined to prove the FBI was corrupt in launching its investigation. His target was the Clinton campaign's hiring former MI6 operative Christopher Steele to dig for whatever dirt could be gleaned from his Russian contacts and the so-called "dossier" of 17 memos totaling 35 pages that he produced. This, for Nunes, was "collusion in plain sight, collusion between Russia and the Democratic Party".

The FBI used the dossier as evidence to substantiate why it should be granted a warrant by the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court to surveil recent Trump campaign aide Carter Page as the opening act in its investigation, or so argued Nunes. That enabled him and his Republican-controlled committee to say that, based on never-proven salacious tales and rumor, the entire FBI probe was illegitimate.

Barr and Durham surely won't let slide the dossier's use in a FISA application. They may build a case of fraudulent submission that could ensnare Comey and anyone else who signed off on its inclusion. Justice IG Horowitz is apparently focused on the dossier and may get there ahead of them. His team has asked why the FBI continued to cite Steele as a reliable source in three further warrant applications spanning a year.

But then the FBI said it had opened the Russia inquiry on July 31, 2016, a date unrelated to the dossier. The Bureau had heard from the Australian government that, back in April, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, over too many drinks in London with Alexander Downer, Australia's ambassador to the U.K., had let slip that the Russians had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Downer took no action, thinking Papadopoulos young and perhaps susceptible to rumor, but when on July 22nd, just before the Democratic convention, Wikileaks released close to twenty thousand e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, proving Papadopoulos's story true, the Australian government contacted the FBI on July 26th Five days later the agency opened its investigation putting an end to the claim that it was the nefarious Steele dossier that had given birth to the inquiry; the dossier did not reach the FBI until September 19th.

Barr thinks there was activity by the intelligence agencies before the FBI's avowed launch date. "I would like to find out whether that is in fact true", he said. Might he have been taken in by Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, who wrote in the conservative National Review that Papadopoulos meeting with the Australian ambassador was "paper cover for an investigation of the Trump campaign that was already underway"? Or by Journal columnist Kim Strassel, who seems to be making discrediting all Trump-Russia investigations her life's work, and who said that George Papadopoulos knowing about Russia's stolen Clinton e-mails was "thin gruel — a random comment by a drunk guy making a vague claim"? So Barr has set Durham to serve up different origins that would satisfy his doubts. For the FBI to start the inquiry in reaction only to Papadopoulos's tip and the Steele dossier was "a fairly anemic effort" in Barr's view. In addition to uncovering earlier covert activity, he wants to shake the tree to find whether bias against Trump falls out.

targets

There was certainly bias already out in the open. With colossal bad judgment, Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent at the FBI, and Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer, had exchanged extensive anti-Trump e-mail on FBI servers. "There's no way [Trump ] gets elected", said an e-mail in August 2016, "but I'm afraid we can't take that risk". They had called the candidate "an idiot" and "douche". Trump would never become president, Strzok texted Page, "We'll stop it". They also e-mailed "I'm worried if HRC is elected" and held dim views of Bernie Sanders, Chelsea Clinton, Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, but that hardly counted.

Barr and Durham are certainly questioning how it was that Peter Strzok, who had run the investigation that declined to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her e-mail misdeeds, had gone on to start the investigation into possible wrongdoing by her adversary in the election?

Strzok, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, insisted his personal opinions had never contaminated his work at the FBI on the Clinton e-mail case, a claim backed by Horowitz. Barr and Furman and possibly Horowitz this time around might make different determinations.

Possessed of "hall monitor rectitude", Horowitz was questioned about his upcoming report and acknowledged that his office found enough wrongdoing to require criminal referrals to the Justice Department for two successive heads of the FBI.

That would be cashiered FBI Director James Comey, who memorialized his four meetings with President Trump in notes written directly after these encounters, notes that recorded Trump's asking for loyalty, and that charges be dropped against Trump's former national security adviser Gen. Mike Flynn for lying to the FBI. Comey knew these out of bounds requests might someday matter, but he broke protocol by keeping the notes at home, and after he was cashiered from his job as FBI director, he had a lawyer friend leak one of the notes to the Times. In a report this summer, Horowitz lambasted Comey's characterization of his notes as his personal papers as "wholly incompatible with the plain language of the statutes, regulations and policies defining Federal records". The Justice Department declined to prosecute, but the zeal of the Barr/Durham probe suggests they are looking for casualties.

That would also be Andrew McCabe, who was infamously fired as acting FBI director just hours before being eligible for his pension after 21 years of service with the Bureau. His alleged crime? In 2016 as deputy director he had been authorized to deal with the media, had deputized two subordinates to rebut to a Journal reporter allegations that he had slowed the Bureau's inquiry into the Clinton Foundation, but was then evasive and lied — unintentionally say his lawyers — when asked about it. FBI personnel would typically be punished administratively rather than criminally prosecuted for such violations, but McCabe has been a target of Trump. His wife ran for the Virginia Senate, funded by a committee run by a Clinton ally. That proved to Trump that McCabe was an enemy trying to take down his presidency.

Horowitz referred McCabe to prosecutors who, after 18 months, have not been able to get the usually automatic indictment from a grand jury which, it is surmised, found the government's case too weak, as did one of the prosecutors who quit for a private sector job. But the Attorney General seems vengeful and may have his department try again.

spying

"Government power was used to spy on American citizens", Barr said to Fox News, as if shocked to learn that the FBI, a branch of his own Justice Department, did that — and does it all the time. It's part of their job description. He is surely looking at these cases. What's your guess that he will find predicates for spying?

Carter Page was eminently worthy of surveillance. He had spent several years in Russia, albeit with Merrill Lynch. The FBI suspected his being a possible Russian agent — two Russians had tried to recruit him in 2013 in New York City. (One was later convicted as a spy, the other deported). He had traveled to Russia looking to make energy deals, but was being investigated by the FBI for allegedly meeting with two Russians in Putin's circle who are on the sanctions list. He had criticized the U.S. in a speech before prominent Russian officials. He had praised Putin as a better leader than Barack Obama.

Republicans have made much of the FBI using an informant in 2016. Barr will surely follow suit. He was identified as Stefan Halper, an American academic living in the United Kingdom, who by different emeasn — some deceptive, some not — had managed to meet with Page in July of 2016 at a conference and were in touch by e-mail for over a year; with Sam Clovis, co-chair of Trump's campaign; and George Papadopoulos whom he cold-contacted that September and lured to London with a small research job. He would ask what they knew of Russian attempts to influence the election. The subterfuge infuriated Trump and his supporters when the story broke in May, 2018. "If true — all time biggest political scandal!", Trump tweeted. "I hereby demand…that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes". When AG Barr said, "I think spying did occur", he was surely speaking of the FBI using non-employee Halper who didn't identify for whom he was working to those he contacted.

In July, the news media broke the story that the CIA was force to extricate to the U.S. in 2017 a decades-long source who had risen to a position in the Kremlin itself with access to the highest levels of the Russian government. The operative had supplied conclusive evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, even that Vladimir Putin himself was behind the plot, knowledge so close in that it risked the Russians realizing they had a mole. CIA Director John Brennan kept reports from the source out of the daily intelligence brief, handing them directly to President Obama to strictly limit the number of people who knew of the asset. Barr and Durham will certainly want to know from the CIA whether and when this information was handed to the FBI and might it have been the trigger of the FBI probe some time before end-July 2016. Brennan is an outspoken foe of Trump. Will Barr or Durham find in this some route to go after Brennan and perhaps James Clapper in the bargain?

the conspiracy farce

Republicans who say that the FBI conspired to prevent Trump from becoming president have something of a structural problem in making their case: the sound of silence. The FBI did not want to risk a repeat of the hotly controversial handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail case. In contrast, on the probe into Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials the Bureau went silent and even declined to interview key Trump associates because that would reveal the existence of the investigation. Fearful of leaks, agents didn't even report findings to the Justice Department across the street. Peter Strzok, overseeing the work, thought political appointees there would find the details too "tasty" to resist sharing. But "I'm not worried about our side", he wrote in a text. Revelations that both Trump's choice of national security adviser and his campaign chairman were both under investigation could have derailed the Trump campaign and with Clinton the assumed winner bolstered his allegations that the election was rigged in her favor.

Thus, Comey greatly damaged Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency with his last-minute announcement of a new cache of e-mails found (that added nothing new, being most likely the other end of e-mails already seen). But the Bureau kept mum about the Trump-Russia investigation. The election came and went without a word. Pointing to the e-mails of Strzok and Page as proof the FBI conspired against Trump came to nothing because the FBI waited until after the election to reveal that his campaign was under investigation.

So Barr and Durham are left with no claim that damage was done, and will resort instead to ferreting through the U.S. code to find what crimes they can allege were committed by the methods the Bureau used.

much ado

Ultimately, what does it matter whether the investigation was started covertly well before acknowledged, or even that bias was a driver?

The Russians conducted a multi-faceted attack on America's elections, hacking into and disseminating Democratic committee e-mail, invading electoral systems of 21 states, saturating social media using phony Facebook and Twitter identities created by teams of Russian trolls, targeting voting groups opposed to Trump to dissuade them from voting. And yet all the while there was the buzz of suspicious contacts with Russians by Trump campaign and transition members — 272 instances, every one of them itemized here. Barr's proscription against intelligence agencies investigating political campaigns would have missed it all.

For the FBI and the nation's other intelligence agencies not to have launched surveillance and investigations would have found us writing here about their stunning negligence in failing to protect the nation. They did what they were meant to do.

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