House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said that Justice Department investigations into the origins of the Russia probe were part of an effort to “ignore what the Russians did, and what they will do in the next election.” | Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo
Attorney General Bill Barr said he wanted to find out whether there was inappropriate government “spying” on the Trump campaign.
By NATASHA BERTRAND
The House Intelligence Committee has “very little visibility” into the three Justice Department investigations into the intelligence officials who launched the Russia probe, the panel’s chairman Adam Schiff said on Wednesday.
It’s a situation that has Schiff concerned, given his fears that the probes are politically motivated.
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“It’s an effort to amplify the counter-narrative, and to ignore what the Russians did, and what they will do in the next election,” Schiff said at a National Press Club event on Wednesday. “We’ve already seen a disturbing erosion of our checks and balances” with regard to the White House’s contact with DOJ, he added.
DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General has been investigating the origins of the Russia probe since last year. Attorney General Bill Barr launched a parallel investigation in May, tapping John Durham to spearhead the inquiry around the time special counsel Robert Mueller was wrapping up the two-year probe, which concluded Trump’s campaign did not criminally conspire with Russian intermediaries to disrupt the 2016 election. Barr said he wanted to find out whether there was inappropriate government “spying” on the Trump campaign that drove suspicions of a Kremlin link.
According to The New York Times, Durham’s efforts have since zeroed in on the CIA analysts responsible for the conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the 2016 election specifically to help Trump win. The focus has alarmed some in the national security community who worry that Durham’s probe will cast doubt on the apolitical nature of intelligence gathering and give credence to the president’s misleading claims that Obama-era officials tried to sabotage his campaign.
Those fears have been exacerbated by Trump’s decision to give Barr sweeping declassification authority, a power usually delegated to intelligence leaders for their own evidence.
Schiff indicated that, despite asking the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to keep him informed about any official declassification requests from Barr, the House Intelligence Committee — which oversees the intelligence community — remains largely in the dark about what the agencies are having to produce and whether their cooperation is voluntary or being compelled.
“I have discussed personally with the Director of National Intelligence [Dan] Coats my profound concern about what Bill Barr is doing in particular,” Schiff said. “Namely, his desire to provide cover to the president by investigating the investigators.”
Others are less anxious about Durham’s probe, noting that the CIA has been investigated by Durham before and is accustomed to this kind of oversight. They point to 2008, when Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Durham to conduct a criminal investigation into the destruction of torture tapes made by the CIA years earlier. That probe was expanded and later resulted in full criminal investigations into the deaths of two detainees, which ultimately wrapped in 2012 with no charges brought against anyone in the agency.
It’s unclear, though, what mandate Durham is operating under and whether he is looking at the intelligence agencies with an eye to recommending criminal charges. He has not been appointed to lead a criminal investigation, and the Justice Department has formally described the inquiry as only as a “review.” Durham also won’t be leaving his day job as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut.
Schiff, meanwhile, said he is still trying to get answers from the FBI about the counterintelligence findings of Mueller’s investigation, and whether the counterintelligence investigation launched in early 2017 into Trump himself was ever formally closed.
While the FBI has “started to provide some answers” and increased briefings, Schiff said, they’ve been reluctant to go into any detail. “They’re just telling us about process,” Schiff said. “Like everything else, it’s like pulling teeth, and our patience is growing fatigued at this point.”