Congress

Did you say ‘spying?’ Barr walks back testimony after making a stir

Barr clears up his Senate testimony after cable news and social media buzz over one of his word choices

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. Lee J. Lofthus, assistant attorney general for administration, appears at left. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General William Barr sought to “please add one point of clarification” at the end of his testimony Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee — and the veteran law enforcement official needed it.

Cable news and social media were abuzz with one of Barr’s earlier word choices, when he told senators that he would look into the work of U.S. intelligence agencies directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election because “spying did occur.”

Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, had pointedly given Barr an opportunity to rephrase that, “because when the attorney general of the United States uses the word ‘spying,’ it’s rather provocative and in my view unnecessarily inflammatory.”

Then Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas had asked Barr to explain the basis for reaching a conclusion that spying or unauthorized surveillance on the Trump campaign was possible.

“Um, did you say that I said that it occurred?” Barr had replied.

So just before the hearing ended, Barr seemed to realize that maybe he had created a mess he needed to clean up, one that dealt with one of the most contentious and inflammatory subjects in politics during the Trump administration.

“I just want to make it clear, thinking back on all the different colloquies here, that I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred,” Barr offered at the close of the hearing. “I am saying I am concerned about it and looking into it, that’s all.”

Watch: Barr on Mueller memo: ‘The letter speaks for itself’

How it began

Barr’s comments on the spying topic went sideways about 90 minutes before that in a response to a question from New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the subcommittee’s top Democrat.

[Mueller report to be released ‘hopefully next week’ Barr says Wednesday]

Barr confirmed to Shaheen that he would review the “genesis and conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” noting that the Justice Department inspector general’s office was already looking at a substantial portion of it.

“One of the things I want to do is pull together the information from all the various investigations that have gone on, including on the Hill and in the department, and see if there are any remaining questions to be addressed,” Barr said.

Shaheen asked why he needed to do that. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr replied.

“You’re not suggesting, though, spying occurred?” Shaheen said.

Barr stammered a bit. “I don’t, well, I guess you could, I think spying did occur, yes. I think spying did occur,” he said.

[Democrats ponder power of the purse to get full Mueller report]

Five seconds of silence filled the hearing room after that, and Barr continued: “The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated, and I’m not suggesting it wasn’t adequately predicated, but I need to explore that. I think it’s my obligation.”

That second part of the answer — which can be unpacked only with some deep familiarity with the origins of the intelligence probe, the requirements of getting Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, and whether those warrants count as “spying” — was somewhat lost behind Barr’s verbiage.

Barr’s answer fit in with the views of President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers, who have called for an investigation into the intelligence agencies and into whether a warrant was obtained against a Trump campaign official, an American citizen, with unverified information.

Barr told Sen. Lindsey Graham that he shared the South Carolina Republican’s concern that there wasn’t a good reason to open up a counterintelligence investigation against a presidential candidate, and that the Trump campaign was not briefed on the probe.

“I just want to satisfy myself that there were no abuse of law enforcement or intelligence powers,” Barr responded to a question from Graham.

[Barr makes no mention of Mueller ahead of Tuesday testimony]

Getting it right

More than an hour after Barr first used the spying word, Schatz asked Barr if he wanted to rephrase what he is doing with the review.

“Because I think the word spying could cause everybody in the cable news ecosystem to freak out, and I think it’s necessary for you to be precise with your language here,” Schatz said. “You normally are, and I want to give you a chance to be especially precise here.”

“I’m not sure of all the connotations of that word that you’re referring to, but, you know, unauthorized surveillance,” Barr responded. “I want to make sure there was no unauthorized surveillance. Is that more appropriate in your mind?”

Schatz told Barr it was his call. “I really did want to give you a chance to say it how you wanted to say it and make sure you didn’t misspeak,” the senator said. “Because you talked for a long time, you did yesterday, and I want to make sure you want to use the words you want to use.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the spying comments directly contradict what the Justice Department previously told lawmakers.

“I’ve asked DOJ to brief us immediately,” the New York Democrat tweeted.

And Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel, told CNN that Barr’s comment “almost seems to be endorsing one of these theories that has been debunked time and time again.”

Moran, at the close of the hearing, said the committee would, as it does with all witnesses, welcome anything Barr wanted to amend or correct in his testimony.

“If I review the transcript and see a problem, I’ll let you know,” Barr said with a smile and a slight chuckle.

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