Attorney General William P. Barr said Wednesday he thinks intelligence agents conducted “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016 — a startling assertion by the nation’s top law enforcement official as he prepares to release a comprehensive report detailing the special counsel investigation of Russia’s election interference.

Barr’s surprising comments echo unsubstantiated claims President Trump has made about the FBI, and though the attorney general later clarified that he was concerned about the legal basis for surveilling political figures, his words provided fresh ammunition to those who have branded the Russia investigation an illegitimate attempt to derail Trump’s presidency.

At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barr was asked about his congressional testimony from Tuesday, when he told House lawmakers that he would review how the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation in its effort to determine whether Trump’s associates were conspiring with Russians to interfere in the election.

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“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It’s a big deal,” Barr said, noting that long-established rules prevent U.S. intelligence agencies from collecting information on domestic political figures.

“I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated, but I think it’s important to look at that,” he said. “I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily but intelligence agencies more broadly.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked: “You’re not suggesting that spying occurred?”

Barr answered: “I think spying did occur, yes. I think spying did occur.” The key question, he added, is whether that activity was legal or proper.

“I need to explore that,” Barr added, noting that he had not yet formed a team to do so. “I also want to make clear this is not launching an investigation of the FBI. Frankly, to the extent that there were any issues at the FBI, I do not view it as a problem that’s endemic to the FBI. I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there in the upper echelon.”

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The FBI’s Russia investigation began under then-Director James B. Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, both of whom were targets of Trump’s ire before being fired.

A lawyer for Comey and a spokeswoman for McCabe declined to comment, as did an FBI spokeswoman.

Current and former law enforcement officials have defended their handling of the Russia investigation, saying it was conducted carefully and was based on available evidence. These officials have denied engaging in political spying and have said they had a duty to investigate allegations of serious wrongdoing.

Barr’s comments sparked an immediate response from the House, where the Judiciary and Oversight committees jointly spent much of 2018 scrutinizing the FBI’s conduct during the agency’s probes of Trump’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

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Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C), a close ally of the president’s, cheered Barr’s plans to look into allegations of spying, calling it “massive” and in line with evidence the Republican-led investigation uncovered. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is leading a new investigation of Trump’s conduct, said Barr’s comments “directly contradict” what Justice Department officials had previously said to the committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “it’s dismaying and it’s disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails.” Barr “is the attorney general of the United States of America,” she said, “not the attorney general of Donald Trump.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said Barr should immediately retract his statement and apologize.

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“The only spies interfering in the 2016 campaign were Russian ones,” Blumenthal said.

Current and former law enforcement officials have said the Russia investigation began in late July 2016 with an examination of George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser whose statements and behavior raised suspicions among diplomats and intelligence officials.

Republicans, however, have alleged that the FBI began looking at Trump associates even earlier, relying on weak or phony evidence. Notably, they have accused FBI officials of placing too much faith in a dossier of claims gathered by a former British intelligence officer whose sources claimed that Trump and some of those close to him were in thrall to Russian officials.

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The FBI and Justice Department applied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016 to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. Those applications were reauthorized, and the surveillance continued into mid-2017. The Justice Department inspector general is probing whether those applications were handled properly, and his report on the issue could come in May or June, Barr said.

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Law enforcement officials familiar with Barr’s thinking said he is concerned about investigative steps taken by the FBI in the summer of 2016, and how FBI leaders decided in 2017 to open an investigation into then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Shortly before Wednesday’s hearing began, Trump renewed his attack on the FBI, telling reporters the investigation had been “started illegally.”

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“Everything about it was crooked,” the president said. “. . . This was an attempted coup.”

Barr told lawmakers that his review may scrutinize senior FBI officials’ conduct at the time, saying he felt obligated “to make sure that government power is not abused.

“I think that is one of the principal roles of the attorney general,” he said.

Later in the hearing, Barr offered a more tempered description of his concerns, saying that he wanted to understand whether there was “unauthorized surveillance” of political figures. “I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss the basis for my concern,” Barr said. “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it, and I am looking into it. That is all.”

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“Spying” can be a loaded term with different meanings in political and legal circles. Barr made clear that he was concerned about the legal basis for investigative steps such as court-ordered surveillance.

A person familiar with the attorney general’s thinking said he was not trying to provide conservatives with rhetorical red meat and was using the word “spying” in the technical sense of collecting intelligence.

“Have you any evidence that there was anything improper in those investigations?” asked Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

“I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” Barr replied. “I do have questions about it.”

At another point, Barr said he did not understand why, if intelligence officials thought there was a danger of Russian figures trying to make inroads with Trump associates, the FBI did not warn the campaign about those specific risks.

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“If I were attorney general and that situation came up, I would say, ‘Yes, brief the target of the foreign espionage activity,’ ” Barr said. “I want to satisfy myself that there were no abuse of law enforcement and intelligence powers.”

Lawmakers also questioned Barr about the anticipated release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report detailing his 22-month investigation of Russia’s efforts to influence the election. Barr indicated that a redacted version would be made public “hopefully next week.”

Mueller completed his investigation last month and submitted a nearly 400-page report to Barr. The attorney general then released a letter saying the investigation did not find a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, and that Mueller did not reach a conclusion about whether the president may have tried to obstruct justice during the probe. After reviewing Mueller’s evidence, Barr and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, determined that they could not make a case that the president had obstructed justice.

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Since that announcement on March 24, Barr has said he has been redacting portions of the report that contain grand jury information, sensitive intelligence-gathering details, material that could affect ongoing investigations, and information whose release would violate the privacy interests of “peripheral” figures in the Mueller probe.

The redaction process has raised suspicion among Democrats that Barr is trying to hide information that is damaging to the president, concerns that intensified after recent reports indicating that some on Mueller’s team are unhappy with the brevity of Barr’s initial statement to Congress, and that they think more could and should be said about the seriousness of what investigators found.

The attorney general said Wednesday that none of Mueller’s report was releasable “as I received it, because none of it had been vetted for [grand jury] material.”

Barr would not say whether anyone at the White House has been briefed on the report’s contents, and he told the panel’s senior Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), that he has not overruled Mueller on any recommendation regarding redactions — whether to omit certain information or leave it visible.

Matt Zapotosky and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.