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Attorney General Barr tells Congress that 'spying' on Trump campaign 'did occur'

He said he wanted to look into the possibility of 'unauthorized surveillance' of the campaign

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

During a Senate hearing Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr said he believed "spying" by federal intelligence agencies on the Trump campaign "did occur." Barr said he was interested in determining whether or not the surveillance was legally justified.

What did he say at the hearing?

At a hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Barr about a team he had indicated the day before that he was putting together to investigate the FBI's handling of its Russia probe during the 2016 campaign, prior to the appointment of a special counsel. After President Donald Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey in 2017, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed special counsel Robert Mueller to head an independent investigation that would be separate "from the normal chain of command."

Barr responded that he planned on "reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed against — at the Trump campaign during 2016." He said he wanted to "pull together all the information from 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."

Shaheen asked Barr why he thought this was necessary.

"Well, for the same reason we're worried about foreign influence in elections," he responded. "We want to make sure that during elections — I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It's a big deal. Generation I grew up in, which was the Vietnam War period, people were all concerned, you know, about spying on anti-war people and so forth, by the government. And there were a lot of rules put in place to make sure that there's an adequate basis before our law enforcement agencies get involved in ... political surveillance. I'm not suggesting that those rules were violated, but i think it's important to look at that. And I'm not just, I'm not talking about the FBI, necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly."

"So you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?" Shaheen asked.

"I think spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur," Barr said. "But 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. Congress is usually very concerned about intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies staying in their proper lane, and I want to make sure that happened."

He also said that this investigation was not targeting the FBI as a whole, and he didn't think any issues were "endemic" of the agency.

But what does this mean?

It's not entirely clear what spying Barr is specifically referring to. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz is currently investigating whether or not federal investigators abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in order to get a warrant to investigate former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Barr told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday that he expected Horowitz's investigation to wrap up "in May or June."

Barr toned down his phrasing as the Senate hearing progressed.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked Barr if he cared to rephrase his statement, noting, "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."

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

"This is your call," Schatz responded, adding that he just wanted to make sure that Barr had used the right words after so many hours of testimony.

Barr would later hedge somewhat, adding "I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and looking into it. That's all."

One last thing…
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