The top Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence committees notified the nation’s spy chiefs Friday that they intend to closely monitor efforts by Attorney General William P. Barr to review the government probe of President Trump’s 2016 campaign — and expect them to inform lawmakers about the extent to which their agencies are cooperating.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent letters to the heads of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, as well as the director of national intelligence, demanding in-person briefings to discuss what materials Barr has sought thus far and that copies are to be shared with the committee. He insisted, too, that they notify the panel in advance if Barr intends to declassify anything, noting when they disagreed with his orders and why.
In a separate letter, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), asked the spy chiefs to “immediately” inform the panel “if you see signs” that Barr’s inquiry risks compromising intelligence-gathering sources and methods, affecting relationships with foreign liaisons, or adversely impacting the intelligence community’s workforce. He also asked that they notify the panel of any “selective declassification” that appeared politically motivated.
Trump last week granted Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify government secrets and directed the intelligence agencies to comply swiftly with the attorney general’s audit of their work related to the 2016 election. The move has drawn outrage from congressional Democrats, who continue to clash with the White House over its refusal to cooperate with their investigations of the president, and it has unnerved current and former FBI officials and those in the intelligence community who have denied Trump’s claims that “spying” was conducted on his campaign.
Barr’s inquiry “represents a disturbing effort by the President and the Attorney General to politicize the Intelligence Community and law enforcement,” Schiff wrote in his letters, saying Trump and Barr were “engaged in a public campaign to further a conspiracy theory” and their efforts could undermine national security.
Barr has been criticized by former FBI director James B. Comey, among others, for also using the term “spying” to characterize how investigators monitored some Trump campaign advisers who had contacts with Russians. Barr’s critics maintain that such surveillance was a proper part of a counterintelligence investigation.
Schiff asked for a response by Thursday.
In an interview that aired Friday on “CBS This Morning,” Barr said investigations surrounding Trump’s 2016 campaign were “unprecedented” and crossed “a serious red line.”
“People have to understand, you know, one of the things here is that these efforts in 2016, these counterintelligence activities that were directed at the Trump campaign, were not done in the normal course and not through the normal procedures as far as I can tell,” Barr said. It’s difficult, he added, to “not feel that there was gross bias at work.”
Barr appeared to be referencing anti-Trump text messages exchanged by former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who were involved in the bureau’s probes of Trump and his political opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Republicans in Congress have argued that the texts are evidence of bias within the FBI, though a Justice Department inspector general’s report released last year concluded that while some individuals might have expressed their political leanings and opinions, bias had not affected the Clinton probe.
Barr also scoffed at concerns that he might compromise intelligence gathering by wielding his newly granted declassification power, noting he would declassify only in “an exceptional circumstance” and in consultation with the agencies. But he did not swear off the possibility of sharing some of that material with the public.
“If there is information that can be shared with the American people without jeopardizing intelligence sources and methods, that decision should be made,” Barr said on CBS, adding: “I think I’m in the best [position] to make that decision.”
Republicans have cheered on Barr, whose investigation many in the GOP see as legitimizing the campaign they have waged for months alleging the FBI abused its surveillance powers. Their accusations have prompted criminal referrals to the Justice Department and were at the heart of bitter partisan fighting in the House Intelligence Committee last year.
Friday’s letters to the spy chiefs come as House Democrats are locked in a standoff with Barr over access to redacted materials and underlying evidence that informed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russia’s election interference.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. The House Intelligence Committee stopped just short of doing the same after striking a deal for access to 12 categories of counterintelligence information related to Mueller’s investigation.