US attorney-general William Barr in Washington, US, April 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT
US attorney-general William Barr in Washington, US, April 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ERIN SCOTT

New York — US attorney-general William Barr said that he’s starting his own inquiry into counter-intelligence decisions that may have amounted to political “spying”, including actions taken during the probe of the Trump campaign in 2016.

“I think spying did occur,” Barr told a senate appropriations panel on Wednesday, “but the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated. I need to explore that.”

The comments, confirming a report by Bloomberg News, indicate that Barr is looking into allegations that Republican law makers have been pursuing for more than a year — that the investigation into US President Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia was tainted at the start by anti-Trump bias within the FBI and US justice department.

Barr said he was not  opening a broad investigation into the FBI — vouching for the bureau and current director Christopher Wray — but added “there was probably a failure by a group of leaders there at the upper echelon”.

Barr’s inquiry is separate from a long-running investigation by the justice department’s inspector-general. Barr told a house appropriations panel on Tuesday that he expected the inspector-general’s work to be completed by May or June.

Asked about the prospect of such an inquiry, Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he’s most interested in the attorney-general “getting started on going back to the origins” of what the president called “an attempted coup”, saying, “What they did was treason.”

Before they lost control of the house in last November’s election, Jim Jordan and Republican allies, including Devin Nunes of California, conducted a two-year campaign to show that players in the FBI and justice department were out to get Trump

The issue came up as Barr continues to be pressed by Democrats to give law makers special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and the evidence behind it.

“Attempts to hide swathes of the report from public scrutiny along the way will only fuel suspicions” that the justice department is “playing the role of President Trump’s defence team,” senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said at Wednesday’s hearing. Barr said that after releasing a public version of Mueller’s report — with some sections redacted — he will talk to leaders of the senate and house judiciary panels about providing them more information. “I’m willing to work with the committees,” he said.

But Republicans remain focused on questions about the origins of the probe. Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads the senate judiciary committee, has already pledged to pursue the issue.

“Once we put the Mueller report to bed, once Barr comes to the committee and takes questions about his findings and his actions, and we get to see the Mueller report, consistent with law, then we are going to turn to finding out how this got off the rails,” he said in a March 28 interview with Fox News.

Sessions probed

Some justice department officials have argued that a review into the FBI is necessary based on a pattern of actions, including a criminal investigation that agents opened into former attorney-general Jeff Sessions in 2017 for misleading legislators  about his contacts with Russians when he was a senator advising Trump’s campaign. The case against Sessions was eventually closed without charges.

“That’s great news he’s looking into how this whole thing started back in 2016,” representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the house oversight and reform committee, said on Tuesday of Barr’s interest in the issue. “That’s something that has been really important to us. It’s what we’ve been calling for.”

Before they lost control of the house in last November’s election, Jordan and Republican allies, including Devin Nunes of California, conducted a two-year campaign to show that players in the FBI and justice department were out to get Trump. They interviewed more than 40 witnesses, demanded hundreds of thousands of justice department and FBI documents, and held a bombastic hearing in attempts to bring attention to their suspicions.

‘Salacious’ dossier

Republican representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama asked Barr during Tuesday’s hearing if the justice department is investigating “how it came to be that your agency used a salacious and unverified dossier as a predicate for US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fis) order on a US citizen?”

Aderholt was referring to the “Steele Dossier” that was put together as opposition research against Trump, including with funding from Democrats.

Congressional Republicans — and the president — have alleged that officials improperly relied on that dossier to obtain a secret warrant to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. They say that was the start of the probe that Trump calls a “witch hunt” and that Mueller took over after Trump fired FBI director James Comey.

In congressional testimony in 2018, though, Comey rejected the underlying thesis — that the Russia investigation was prompted by the dossier. “It was not,” Comey told house legislators.

Rather, he said, the probe began with information about a conversation that a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser — now known to be George Papadopoulos — “had with an individual in London about stolen e-mails that the Russians had that would be harmful to Hillary Clinton.”

With Steven T Dennis and Shannon Pettypiece

Bloomberg