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When Is A Spy Not A Spy?

It is not impossible that the alarmists are correct and that the FBI did behave badly with respect to the Trump campaign. So far, the evidence does not support that contention.

A continuing claim propagated by President Trump and his supporters is that the Obama Administration used a corrupt FBI led by James Comey to illegally spy on the Trump campaign. Proponents of this conspiracy theory claim that Obama-era officials used trumped up (pardon the pun) evidence to “wiretap,” in Mr. Trump’s words, Trump confidantes. This allegation is disturbing, if true, but thus far the evidence does not live up to the hype.

Most recently, the revelation in the New York Times that the FBI used a female informant to meet with  George Papadopoulos in a London bar in September 2016 has been used to justify the sensationalist claim. However, when the known details of the meeting are examined, they don’t sound nearly as sinister as the alarmists make it out to be.

Azra Turk, the woman in question, posed as a research assistant to Stephan Halper, an American professor at Cambridge University in London. Halper was also used as an FBI informant to collect information on Russia in 2016. The two met with Papadopoulos after he told Greek and Australian diplomats in May 2016 that Russia was in possession of stolen emails relating to Hillary Clinton. The DNC hack was not public knowledge until July. The Australian, Alexander Downer, passed the information along to US authorities, giving the FBI probable cause to open a counterintelligence investigation. It would have been a dereliction of duty on the part of the FBI not to investigate a potential link between a Trump campaign staffer and Russian intelligence.

Papadopoulos has said that his “biggest regret” was not reporting the Russian offer to American officials. “The stupidest thing I did was actually gossiping about it with foreign diplomats,” Papadopoulos said in a New York Times interview last year. “And not telling the U.S. intelligence community until I was interviewed.”

Carter Page, another former Trump campaign advisor, attracted the attention of US intelligence agencies in September 2016 for alleged ties to Russian intelligence. Jason Miller, the Trump campaign communications director, said at the time, “Mr. Page is not an advisor and has made no contribution to the campaign. I’ve never spoken to him, and wouldn’t recognize him if he were sitting next to me.”

The application for a FISA warrant against Page was released last year and was dated to October 2016, which was after Page had left the Trump campaign. The heavily redacted document supports the claim that the Steele dossier was among the sources used to obtain the warrant, but other evidence against Steele is censored in the application. The released report quashes the Republican claim that the application did not reveal the partisan nature of the Steele dossier. A footnote specifically noted that the dossier compiler was “likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump’s] campaign.”

When it comes to Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager, surveillance took place before he ever joined the Trump campaign. Manafort was the subject of surveillance in 2014 due to his association with deposed Ukrainian dictator, Viktor Yanukovych, and ceased before he joined the Trump campaign in February 2016. On June 9, 2016, Manafort was one of the participants in the Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. On June 20, Trump fired Cory Lewandowski and promoted Manafort to campaign manager. He remained in that position until he resigned on August 19, 2016, in the wake of revelations about his work for the pro-Putin Yanukovych. At some point in 2016, surveillance was restarted on Manafort and lasted into early 2017.

Interestingly, Manafort had a condo in Trump Tower. Some Trump supporters argue that the surveillance of Manafort proves that Trump’s 2017 tweet about wiretapping the Trump Tower is true. However, the facts don’t square with Trump’s statement which said, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” Surveilling Manafort is not the same as surveilling Trump.

In the final case, Michael Flynn was revealed to have lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador. The inconsistencies in Flynn’s account apparently came through some sort of surveillance, but the details are not known. The Mueller report revealed that Flynn’s relationship with the Russian government has previously attracted the attention of the FBI.  

In his congressional testimony, Attorney General William Barr defended the use of the word “spying” to relate to the FBI’s actions with respect to the Trump campaign. Under a broad definition of the term, he is correct, but if Barr’s definition of the word is used then almost any undercover investigation could be described as spying. More important than Barr’s inflammatory word choice, however, is the fact that he has not offered evidence of any illicit or illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign. Saying that spying took place does not mean that the FBI did anything wrong.

In fact, on April 10, Barr stepped away from the assumption that the FBI acted illegally, saying, “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.”

To support the claims of the alarmists on surveillance and FBI corruption, we would have to believe that any surveillance of the Trump campaign was illegal because they were political opponents of the Obama Administration. In reality, there was probable cause to investigate at least the four members of the Trump campaign that we know were the subject of FISA warrants. Being part of a campaign does not insulate staffers from law enforcement if there was evidence of an illicit relationship with a foreign and hostile government, especially when there is evidence that government is trying to undermine a presidential election. If the FBI did not investigate alleged relationships to Russian intelligence by people who could soon hold high-ranking government positions, it would not be doing its job.

It is not impossible that the alarmists are correct and that the FBI did behave badly with respect to the Trump campaign. So far, however, the evidence does not support that contention. To know if the FBI and intelligence agencies are corrupt, we need to know how widespread the surveillance was, what evidence triggered it, whether it expanded beyond alleged contacts with Russian intelligence into a fishing expedition, and whether the intelligence was passed along to the Clinton campaign.  

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and, so far, the Trump Administration has not provided it. There are currently investigations underway that may give us more answers, but, at this point, it seems that the investigation was both limited and justified. If the Trump Administration has evidence to the contrary, they should make it public rather than making unsubstantiated accusations.

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