WASHINGTON (CN) – Testifying before the same Senate committee where Attorney General William Barr accused the FBI of “spying” on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Tuesday that he would phrase it differently.
“Lots of people have different colloquial phrases,” Wray said. “I believe the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of that investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes. To me, the key question is make sure that it’s done by the book and is consistent with our lawful authorities.”
Back in April, Barr told the same Senate Appropriations subcommittee he believed that “spying did occur.”
“The question is whether it was adequately predicated,” Barr said, promising it was a question he intended to explore further.
But FBI Director Wray testified Tuesday that “spying” was not the term he would use to describe the proper protocol the agency followed in 2016 while Trump’s campaign was facing multiple investigations, including the Russia probe later taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Wray also told senators Tuesday that most of the information was already publicly disclosed through warrants and other testimony before Congress.
During questioning by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, Wray confirmed he and Barr were in “close contact.”
“Now that the special counsel investigation is completed and having only recently returned to the department, the attorney general is seeking to understand better the circumstances at the department and the FBI relating to how this investigation started and we’re working to help him get that understanding,” Wray said. “And I think that is appropriate.”
Barr and Wray are not the only parties working on that investigation. An independent review is also underway by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice. That report is expected to be released in late May or early June.
Tuesday’s testimony, given in a hearing otherwise focused on the FBI’s 2020 budget, also gave Wray a platform to issue warnings about continued Russian efforts to interfere with U.S. elections.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, pressed Wray on whether he believed Russia was scaling down or ramping up such attempts, and whether the United States had sent a clear enough message that such activity would not be tolerated.
“There are still more messages still to be sent,” Wray said.
In 2017, Wray launched the Foreign Influence Task Force with the agency’s existing resources by bringing together cyber intelligence, counterintelligence, criminal and counterrorism investigators.
The task force acted like a “hub with spokes going out to field offices” where information was shared between the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Security and the National Security Agency.
But Russia has since “upped its game,” Wray said, adding that the FBI also wants to monitor malign activity by other nations, including China, Iran and North Korea.
Wray called as well for strengthened partnerships between law enforcement agencies, the federal government, and social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. He said the agency’s $29 billion request for 2020 could help meet the additional personnel and infrastructure requirements.
During the 2018 midterm elections, social media companies supplied the FBI with several leads on foreign interference operations, Wray said Tuesday.
This interaction provided fresh insight into how quickly tech platforms can receive data and disrupt nefarious activity, Wray said, adding that this is often “a lot” faster than the government can.
Weighing the last few years’ experience with foreign meddling, Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, pressed Wray for specifics.
“The Mueller report concluded the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and would work to secure that outcome,” Reed said. “Do you have any indication of a preference for a candidate that the Russians have at this point?”
“Nothing that I could share at this particular point in time,” Wray said.
The senator then asked whether Wray would divulge any information that might indicate a foreign actor was manipulating or using a U.S. political candidate.
“Certainly we want to make sure both Congress and the public get information,” Wray said. “But anytime you raise a hypothetical regarding counterintelligence operations, I want to be careful about [how I describe] my resources in light of my commitment to protecting investigations.”
Reed noted that Republicans have lobbed fierce criticism of late against former President Barack Obama for “not doing enough” to express Russia’s interest in manipulating the 2016 election – but what would happen now, the senator asked.
Wray only said the agency was “keenly” focused on preparing for the 2020 election and would keep relevant entities abreast of its work to stop propaganda sowed through “fake news and fake personas” aimed at generating chaos.
The director also hedged when asked what could be done to combat false narratives by candidates in the 2020 election, including those that may suggest undocumented immigrants are infiltrating the U.S. voting system.
“We’re in a situation now – if the [foreign influencer’s] candidate fails in 2020, will the candidate do what he did last time? How do we immediately communicate with the American public on the facts … we could face a constitutional crisis of immense dimensions,” Reed asked.
For now, Wray said, the interface between the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. government, and state and local election officials has made it a top priority to counter any malign influence.
Wray also confirmed Tuesday that the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security have held a number of meetings already to discuss how agencies can help the public separate fact from fiction once the election heats up.
Some of the meetings included collaborations with the president, Wray said.