Four years after the FBI sent “Confidential Human Sources” secretly to gather information on Donald Trump’s team, the president’s opponents in politics and the media continue to deny that the bureau spied on his 2016 campaign. They are now using that denial to dismiss questions of voting irregularities in the 2020 election by arguing that Trump and his allies traffic in outrageous falsehoods for partisan purposes.
During the vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence said, “When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on President Trump and my campaign.” The response from NBC “fact checkers” was to declare that “Pence repeated a false claim that Trump made during the first presidential debate – accusing the Obama administration of spying on their 2016 campaign.”
At Politico, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio caricatured the accusation of spying as alleging “Biden was a mastermind of an effort to spy on Trump’s 2016 campaign,” saying it was a story “riddled with falsehoods, exaggerations and assumptions.” By pressing accusations of spying, the president has politicized “institutions in a way that will leave lasting damage,” Politico quoted Democrats saying. The outlet warned, “Trump may exacerbate that strain in the coming weeks.”
Last week, USA Today reporters Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips described as “debunked allegations” claims that Trump’s team had been spied on, while reporting that Attorney General William Barr, a prominent leveler of the charge last year, was now opening the Justice Department to "claims of partisan interference" with a new directive to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities.
Lesley Stahl, in her “60 Minutes” interview with President Trump ahead of the election, refused to even discuss the spying charge, rejecting it as unverified and untrue.
“The biggest scandal was when they spied on my campaign,” Trump told Stahl. “They spied on my campaign, Lesley.”
“Well, there's no real evidence of that,” Stahl objected.
“Of course there is. It's all over the place."
“Lesley, they –"
“– spied on my campaign and they got caught."
“Can I -- can I say something?” Stahl said. “You know, this is '60 Minutes.' And we can't put on things we can't verify –"
“No,” Trump said, “you won't put it on because it's bad for Biden. Look, let me tell you –"
“We can't put on things we can't verify.”
Sen. Charles Grassley says Stahl and other media are denying the facts – facts that have not only been verified but proven: “The FBI ran confidential informants against multiple Trump campaign aides in the lead-up to the 2016 election,” the Iowa Republican told RealClearInvestigations. “They aggressively sought and received secret warrants to eavesdrop on Carter Page’s communications – warrants that were repeatedly renewed despite many critical flaws and omissions of exculpatory evidence. These facts are indisputable,” Grassley said. “Call it whatever you want to call it, but if this isn’t spying, I don’t know what is.”
This might appear at first glance to be a debate about semantics, a question of whether to call surveillance “spying” or something with less negative overtones, such as “intelligence-gathering.” Either way, it has been verified that the FBI took the extraordinary step of investigating an ongoing campaign for the presidency. It has also been verified that the bureau drew on its complete arsenal, including wiretaps and secret agents – both in-house “Undercover Employees” and contract operatives called “Confidential Human Sources.”
Though the FBI doesn’t use the word “spy” to describe its own activities, the bureau’s actions fit definitions of spying, old and new. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined spying as “To search or discover by artifice.” Thomas Sheridan’s 18th century dictionary described a spy as “One sent to watch the conduct or motions of others.” Modern dictionaries differ very little from their precursors. A spy, according to the “American Heritage Dictionary,” is “an agent employed by a state to obtain secret information.”
That describes FBI Confidential Human Source [CHS] Stefan Halper rather well. Using his cover as a Cambridge professor, Halper cozied up to both Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos and pumped them for information. Halper’s spycraft included introducing an attractive FBI asset to Papadopoulos, claiming she was his research assistant. “Azra Turk,” as she was called, was an Undercover Employee – or UCE as the bureau bloodlessly refers to its secret staff – and she tried to get Papadopoulos in a chatty mood.
Some definitions of spying imply a certain negativity to the enterprise. American Heritage offers this: “To observe secretly with hostile intent.” Webster’s includes: “to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes.” The imputation of hostility suggests that spying is not a very nice thing to do. The implication is that those being observed are unlikely to be getting a fair shake. That accurately describes the experience of Page, who was repeatedly put under electronic surveillance. The FBI obtained warrants from a secretive federal court by presenting as true false allegations penned by a private spy paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
It’s no mere debating point, this question of whether to call the FBI’s snooping “spying.” It is a question that has serious consequences. The Center for Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an activist group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) would like to see prosecuted some of those who have described the FBI’s methods as “spying.” In particular, the attorney general: “Did Mr. Barr agree to investigate unfounded allegations for the purpose of supporting the talking points of a political campaign?” asks the ethics center report. “If so, such actions would violate the Hatch Act,” which limits federal employee participation in partisan political activities.
The University of Pennsylvania paper claims that DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz “refuted” the claims that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. RealClearInvestigations asked the report’s lead author, Claire Finkelstein, to point to any passages in Horowitz’s reports that do this. The UPenn professor responded with a three-sentence quote from the inspector general. The first sentence reads: "We found no evidence that the FBI used CHSs [Confidential Human Sources] or UCEs [Undercover Employees] to interact with members of the Trump campaign prior to the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”
That does not mean the FBI didn’t send secret agents to gather information on the Trump campaign, just that the spying did not begin until after Crossfire Hurricane was officially launched at the end of July 2016.
The second sentence of the quote Finkelstein referenced states: “After the opening of the investigation, we found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs or UCEs within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign.”
In other words, the spies cozied up to individuals affiliated with the campaign and pumped them for information. The fact that the informants did not themselves join the campaign as moles doesn’t mean they weren’t spying.
The last sentence states, “Finally, we also found no documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivations influenced the FBI's decision to use CHSs or UCEs to interact with Trump campaign officials in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation."
Again, this is an admission that the FBI used paid informants to gather intelligence on the Trump campaign. The inspector general doesn’t write that there was no spying, just that the hiring of the spies was not motivated by “bias.”
Those claiming that the accusation of spying has been “debunked” rely heavily on Inspector General Horowitz’s repeated statements that he had not been able to prove the FBI was motivated by political bias. Does that really mean there wasn’t well-documented bias?
August 8, 2016, a week after Crossfire Hurricane was launched, FBI lawyer Lisa Page texted FBI Section Chief Peter Strzok: Trump is “not ever going to become president, right? Right?” And Strzok replied, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” These messages, and others like them, Horowitz stated, “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.” The text messages were "not only indicative of a biased state of mind,” the inspector general found, “but, even more seriously, impl[y] a willingness to take official action to impact [Trump's] electoral prospects." According to Horowitz, “The messages raised serious questions about the propriety of any investigative decisions in which Strzok and Lisa Page played a role.”
Strzok didn’t just play a role, he “was directly involved in the decisions to open Crossfire Hurricane,” Horowitz wrote. Once the investigation had begun, Strzok was the agent running Crossfire. But the inspector general wrote that he “found that [Strzok] was not the sole, or even the highest level decision maker.”
Horowitz believed that the FBI agent in charge of investigating Trump’s campaign, Strzok, was willing “to take official action to impact [Trump’s] electoral prospects.” But because he didn’t act alone, the inspector general declined to conclude the investigation was tainted, just that there were “serious questions about the propriety” of Crossfire Hurricane.
In response to the Horowitz report, FBI Director Christopher Wray did not admit the FBI “spied,” but he did acknowledge the bureau “did not comply with existing policies, neglected to exercise appropriate diligence, or otherwise failed to meet the standard of conduct that the FBI expects of its employees – and that our country expects of the FBI.”
U.S. Attorney John Durham has been investigating those failures for over a year. He may yet bring charges or close his enterprise without any further prosecutions. Trump has called on Durham to take action.
The Trump team will either find compelling evidence of election fraud or they won’t. The president’s accusations of vote tampering and other irregularities should turn on whether they can be proved. But that will require a willingness to judge the evidence fairly, not a habit of declaring demonstrable facts to have been “debunked.”