Bill Barr's new order blocking FBI surveillance of political candidates has huge loophole
Yesterday, we learned that Trump attorney general William Barr has pushed out another high-level oversight official within the Department of Justice, one who was dedicated to ensuring federal counterintelligence and national security probes remain within the bounds of the law—a strange move, on the eve of a presidential election. The position will now be filled with a political hire chosen by Barr.
Today, Barr released a memo restricting federal surveillance of political candidates and anyone on their campaigns, including "informal" advisers. Specifically, Barr ordered that all electronic surveillance related to possible foreign intelligence links to a campaign member be approved by himself, personally—and that investigators must "consider" warning the target that a foreign government may be targeting them.
It's clearly intended as a response to federal investigators surveilling Trump ex-campaign aide Carter Page during the last election. In practice, this means that Bill Barr, and Bill Barr alone, will be deciding which investigations of foreign election interference and possible criminal acts by campaigns can go forward, and which will be shut down.
After Barr jetted off to Europe in his own personal, hands-on attempt to discredit this nation's investigation of Russian election interference on behalf of Trump, there's little doubt as to just how Barr's new "policy" is going to go manifest itself in the closing weeks of the election.
There are a few oddities about Barr's newest moves, and as usual they appear to be due to Barr's proximity to Trumpian conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation. Barr's demand that the campaign targets of a federal intelligence probe be warned of the danger is, bluntly, for show. If federal counterintelligence officials believe a campaign is the target of foreign agents—as both presidential campaigns were in 2016—candidates have long been alerted to those national security concerns. Barr's move is based on a Trump camp theory that federal officials were attempting to ensnare them in a trap based on their numerous contacts with Russian agents.
Also, it's not clear that Barr's new rules would even have affected the Page investigation, which is the outrage that the changes are supposedly based on. Page wasn't a member of the campaign when the FBI started surveilling him.
Also, Trump's team has just instituted a new policy in which Congress itself will no longer be briefed on emerging election-related intelligence concerns except in written reports. So Trump's allies are now suggesting that suspected allies of foreign intelligence operations be given more warning of the FBI's actions than Congress itself.
In a second memo, Barr created a brand new FBI office to "audit" the department's national security investigations. This would appear to be very similar to the task that was being performed by the career official Barr just removed.
At this point, it’s a timesaver to simply presume Barr is doing the most corrupt thing on behalf of Donald Trump and his attempts to discredit and bury the now-proven links between Russian election interference and members of Trump's campaign. Barr says the new office will ensure "rigorous and robust auditing." An alternative explanation is that Barr is yet again gutting oversight-related offices and replacing them with people and offices he can more reliably control.
The majority of what Barr has done in office has been blocking investigation and prosecution of Trump allies, removal of watchdogs and oversight officials whose work has come into conflict with Trump's needs, and pushing anti-Biden materials to Republican senators eager to pipeline the frothing work of pro-Russian Ukrainians and Rudy Giuliani into their own committee hearings. He doesn't have any pretense of integrity to fall back on.
If it looks crooked on Barr's part, you can bet it's meant to be crooked.