WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr is taking a far more expansive look at the origin of the investigation into Russian interference than was previously known, according to his Senate testimony Wednesday.
Barr told lawmakers he is “working to try to reconstruct” the beginning of the investigation, and confirmed that his internal examination will include “reviewing” whether the dossier prepared by a former British spy was part of a Kremlin disinformation campaign. Barr said he “could not state with confidence” that it wasn’t.
The attorney general added that he is also looking into whether there was “any overreach” by officials at the Justice Department and FBI when they launched the counterintelligence investigation in summer 2016.
The details of Barr’s plan to reconstruct the start of the Russia investigation comes as he is criticizing its conclusions. He said Wednesday that Trump had been “falsely accused of colluding with the Russians,” noting that the special counsel investigation did not establish a criminal conspiracy of collusion.
The statement was one of several that Democrats have seized on as evidence Barr is acting like President Donald Trump’s personal attorney and not the top law enforcement official in the country. A number of Democrats are calling for Barr’s resignation, and others have floated his impeachment as a possibility.
Meanwhile, Trump appears to be pleased with what Barr is doing. Since the hearing wrapped, Trump has re-tweeted seven posts from a conservative legal group that has raised many of the same questions that Barr now says he’s looking to answer. Some of these posts included debunked conspiracy theories about the investigation and called it a “deep state coup” against Trump.
Barr’s first disclosed he was investigating the “genesis” of the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference at a hearing last month when he suggested to lawmakers he believed that “spying” occurred against Trump’s campaign.
His review comes on top of a DOJ Inspector General review of the use of warrants granted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would allow the government to monitor someone’s phone calls and other communications. The IG report is expected in the next few months.
During the Wednesday hearing, Republican senators shifted the focus away from the outcome of the Mueller report, which detailed multiple points of contact between Russians and members of the Trump campaign and the campaign’s willingness to accept information from a foreign adversary. Instead they pivoted back to the beginning of the probe making that the theme of their questions.
“The extent that there was any overreach, I believe it was some — a few people in the upper echelons of the bureau and perhaps the department, but those people are no longer there, and I’m working closely with (FBI Director) Chris Wray, who I think has done a superb job at the bureau, and we’re working together on trying to reconstruct exactly what went down,” Barr told Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
Barr added that “many people seem to assume that the only intelligence collection that occurred was a single confidential informant and a FISA warrant. I’d like to find out whether that is, in fact, true. It strikes me as a fairly anemic effort if that was the counterintelligence effort designed to stop the threat as it’s being represented.”
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley asked if the special counsel considered whether the dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, was part of a Russian disinformation and interference campaign.
“One of the things I’m doing in my review is to try to assemble all the existing information out there about it, not only from Hill investigations and the OIG, but also to see what the special counsel looked into,” Barr said.
FISA surveillance in 2016
Many of the Republicans appeared to be picking up where California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes left off. Last year, while he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes publicly released redacted versions of declassified documents relating to the FISA warrants for Carter Page. Those documents already provided some, but not all, of the answers to the questions, Barr is trying to figure out.
Trump and his allies have charged that the FBI and Justice Department officials improperly used intelligence gathered by Steele in the FISA application on Page and misled the secret court about how Steele’s dossier had been funded through a law firm by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign and did not disclose Steele’s anti-Trump bias.
The redacted versions of the FISA applications that Nunes released show the FBI did disclose a political motivation behind the dossier, stating that the person behind it was likely looking for information to discredit Trump’s campaign.
The applications to monitor Page also mentioned how he was associated in 2015 with two Russian spies who tried to recruit him, including one who was later indicted by US authorities for conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Russia.
The surveillance started under the Obama administration, but Trump’s appointees at the Justice Department continued it. And all four federal judges who approved the warrants and renewals had been appointed by Republican presidents. When the surveillance began, Page had already left Trump’s campaign, which undercuts some of Barr’s assertion that “spying did occur” on the campaign itself.
Revisiting the dossier
CNN revisited the dossier earlier this year and analyzed the veracity of some of the claims, two years after it first came into public view. The most salacious claims in the dossier remain unproven — like allegations that top Trump campaign officials colluded with Russians.
But many of the allegations that form the bulk of the intelligence memos have held up over time or have proven to be at least partially true. Much of the material holds up with what we now know about Trump’s team, their contacts with Russians and Russian election meddling.
In March, a court allowed small portions of Steele’s deposition from a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed, which originally published the dossier, to be made public. In the released portions of the deposition, Steele reveals that he relied on some unverified information that he obtained through internet searches when preparing the reports he later provided to the FBI.
Steele said he did not contact the individuals or companies mentioned in the dossier to verify information because it could expose his sources. Steele was limited by a judge’s order about how detailed he could go into describing what steps he took to verify some of his information.
The deposition snippet released to the public didn’t address whether Steele knew that his Russian sources could be spinning him as part of a Kremlin misinformation campaign. As a seasoned agent with years on the ground in Moscow, Steele would likely know of Russia’s strategy of spreading misinformation.
In the dossier itself, Steele describes the sources of some of his information as “Kremlin insider”, a former top Russian intelligence officer, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure and a “former top-level Russian intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin,” among others.
The Mueller report doesn’t make any conclusions about the dossier directly, but it does indicate where some of the allegations it contained were established and those where it wasn’t, such as the allegation that Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with Russian.
Barr’s look back into the beginning of the investigation will have support from Republicans.
“We’re going to look at the FISA warrant process,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham. “Did Russia provide Christopher Steele the information about Trump that turned out to be garbage, that was used to get a warrant on an American citizen? And if so, how did the system fail?”