Many Americans have been justifiably relieved in the last 24 hours to hear Attorney General Bill Barr’s statement on Capitol Hill that he thinks, yes, there was some spying done on the Trump campaign.
His comments to a Senate panel on Wednesday appear to indicate acknowledgment that the various forms of surveillance used against the Trump campaign are subject to question and critical review, at the very least. Barr has formed a team to review the actions of the FBI and Justice Department in going after the Trump campaign in 2016. And with a few short words – “I think spying did occur” – he has clarified that the internal probe will be a critical one. It won’t take for granted what Democrats and the mainstream media want to be simply assumed: that whatever was done was justified.
That’s a breath of fresh air after more than two years of seeing flimsy, often incoherent, evaporating “evidence” incessantly flogged as if it justified a list of investigative irregularities so lengthy that no one person can even remember, at this point, what they all are.
Meanwhile, Rep. Devin Nunes has referred eight individuals for potential indictment in relation to the Russia-Trump probe, and reportedly has additional indictment referrals in the works. It remains to be seen how the DOJ will handle these referrals as it pursues its own internal investigation. But Nunes has done the signal service of putting down stakes to mark what must not be forgotten or overlooked: indeed, what Barr and the DOJ will owe answers on, apart from what Barr’s team uncovers on its own.
These are welcome and necessary measures, and it’s good to see them taken. Mollie Hemingway reminded us at The Federalist on Wednesday, however, of why they won’t be enough.
Her point is a simple one. It wasn’t just the DOJ and FBI. There were other agencies involved. Barr said as much in the Senate hearing: “I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly.”
Hemingway goes on to point out the significance of that, and she is right to. The complicity of the CIA and Office of the DNI has been hovering over Russiagate (or Spygate) from the beginning. I would add a group of actors on the National Security Council staff as well, and include actors from the State Department and probably Treasury to boot.
The focus during the Mueller probe has been almost exclusively on the FBI and DOJ. But the original impetus for the “Russia-Trump” operation probably didn’t come mostly from the law enforcement agencies, and certainly didn’t come exclusively from them. It is extremely doubtful that the activities of John Brennan, James Clapper, Susan Rice, and other members of the NSC staff were undertaken at the behest of Loretta Lynch and James Comey, as opposed to something more like vice versa.
An internal review of the DOJ and FBI activities should uncover a lot that produces other leads. Barr will be able to look into some of those other leads. But he won’t be able to look into all of them – nor will he, acting in his own authority, be able to declassify or even just reveal everything important his team may discover about what other agencies were doing.
In the normal course of things, the president would exercise the authority to make such disclosures. But Congress and the people have the right to demand transparency and third-party judgment on such decisions in this case. Staffers at the Obama NSC, ODNI, State, Treasury – all may have acted within their nominal authority on some matters, and yet used flawed “intelligence” or other inadequate (even improper) justifications to do it.
Democrats won’t accept the Trump administration’s word for what was done improperly, and Republicans won’t accept the judgment of Democrats in the House, or faceless bureaucrats in the federal agencies who can’t be called publicly to account.
Neither party should be expected to take these things on faith. This abuse of power is too big to paper over with conventions and normal protocols.
Moreover, what is clearly at issue in Spygate goes beyond simple violation of regulations and the letter of the law. The bigger issue – the one that matters for the long run – is the amount and type of power the federal agencies had at hand to abuse in the first place. It may well be that none of Susan Rice, John Brennan, or Samantha Power, or any of their credentialed assistants, literally broke the law in unmasking hundreds of Americans in 2015 and 2016. But their abuse of government power may still have been one of the most heinous things done in the whole affair.
That kind of judgment can’t be made by William Barr, and it can’t be made by the courts. It’s for Congress to decide that, as a policy matter and a matter of good faith and obligation to the people.
To even break it out of its classification box, much less take a jackhammer and blowtorch to it, will require pursuit in Congress – not a special counsel appointed by the attorney general. I think Lindsey Graham has the right idea with his determination to mount another full-blown probe: this one of what all the government actors in Spygate did. But an AG-appointed special counsel can’t have the scope of charter needed to get at the answers we really need.
Congress needs to be in the lead on this one, with a special commission, and a charter to wirebrush everything until it’s raw and bleeding.