WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General William Barr told a Senate panel Wednesday, without citing evidence, that he believes the government spied on the Trump campaign during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I think spying did occur,” Barr said. “Yes, I think spying did occur.”
The attorney general did not explain why he believes the Trump campaign was spied on and offered no details during his testimony to clarify what he was referring to.
President Donald Trump and his allies have long insisted that the FBI wrongfully obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page based on the dossier produced by ex-British spy Christopher Steele.
The application materials themselves, however, showed that the FBI believed Page was being recruited by the Russian government.
Page has denied that claim but the president and his Republican allies have continually pointed to the warrant to support their so far unsubstantiated claim that government officials spied on the campaign.
Later in his testimony Wednesday, Barr clarified that he was referring to “unauthorized surveillance” when he said that he believes spying did occur.
Barr made the admission during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee after Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire pressed him on his plan to review the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian meddling effort.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Bar said. “It’s a big deal.”
Barr pointed to longstanding rules that prevent law enforcement and intelligence agencies from domestic spying without cause as the basis for his review.
“I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated but I think it’s important to look at that,” Barr said.
The attorney general clarified he was not suggesting that no adequate basis existed for the spying he believes happened, but said he wants to explore that.
“I think it’s my obligation. Congress is usually very concerned about intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies staying in their proper lane, and I want to make sure that happened,” Barr said.
Later in the hearing Barr said he believes there is a basis for his concern, but he declined to elaborate. He said he wants to assemble a team to help him identify areas to investigate “both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.”
Barr declined to characterize it as an investigation of the FBI, and said he does not believe an endemic problem exists within the agency.
He praised FBI Director Christopher Wray, calling the bureau an “outstanding organization,” and said he would work closely with Wray if it becomes necessary to examine actions by prior FBI officials.
Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., questioned Barr on whether he has evidence of wrongdoing by special counsel Robert Mueller or the FBI in their investigations of Russian meddling and whether the Trump campaign colluded with that effort.
“I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now,” Barr said. “I do have questions about it.”
Barr demurred when Reed pressed him to say whether he characterized the investigation as illegal or a witch hunt – as President Trump has often characterized it.
“It is what it is,” Barr said. “Mueller and his team conducted an investigation and are reviewing a report. I’ll use my own adjectives. I haven’t referred to the investigation in that way.”
Barr said he had spoken to Mueller about why the special counsel did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, and noted that Mueller did not instruct him to make a determination on the matter.
“But that’s generally how the Department of Justice works,” Barr said.
Once he makes the report public, Barr said he will have more to say about that.
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland asked Barr if Mueller agreed with his conclusion that the president did not obstruct the investigation.
“I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion,” Barr said.
Barr added that he believes key factual evidence related to obstruction will be made available in the public report, and said he plans to review the redactions after the special counsel’s team finishes “to ensure nothing will prevent that.”
Barr said he has not yet overruled the special counsel’s judgment on the categories of information his team is responsible for redacting, and does not intend to do so.
Information that will be redacted includes grand jury material, details that would reveal intelligences methods and sources, and information about ongoing investigations or anything that could damage the reputation of uncharged persons.
Barr said Wednesday, however, that he will not redact Mueller’s report to protect the president’s reputation.
On Tuesday, Barr told a House subcommittee that he is working with the special counsel’s office on the redactions, which will be color-coded to indicate why the information should remain secret.
Barr said the redacted report will be ready for release next week, but that Congress will not get the full, unredacted version.