Electronic surveillance isn't spying — it's much more powerful

Electronic surveillance isn't spying — it's much more powerful
© Greg Nash

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrAnticipation builds for final Supreme Court rulings Anticipation builds for final Supreme Court rulings Trump's Justice Department should change its tune on antitrust policy MORE used the “S” word in front of Congress and the world last week, and organized fainting spells commenced.

“I believe the government spied on the Trump campaign,” said Mr. Barr in a town where semantic directness is simply not practiced among the political pharisees and their pilot fish in the media who seek to preserve a certain order by obfuscating true intent.

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His use of the word “spy” was as blunt as his everyman face. Its stinging connotation was validated in direct proportion to the contrived outrage of opposition politicians and cable news mannequins flopping to the ground and clutching their knees like European soccer players.  

A few weeks ago, disgraced former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeMcCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump McCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump Feds gone wild: DOJ's stunning inability to prosecute its own bad actors MORE stated that he believed President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE was an agent of the Russian government, i.e. a spy. His assertion was met with somber nodding and little, if any, pushback.  

He made this incredible statement without, according to Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, possessing any evidence that it was true. He was, however, in the middle of a book tour and raising cash on a GoFundMe website because, according to him, he was in desperate need of money since the president cut short some of his retirement benefits.  

His anguish can be seen as he drives around his tony neighborhood in his luxury car. Thank you for your contributions to this destitute and victimized man.

McCabe’s fellow traveler in the empty collusion investigation they cooked up and ran — fired former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFive memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Under Trump, our democracy is for sale MORE — was quick to seize another opportunity to moralize to a camera the day after AG Barr used the “S” word.  

“I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about, that’s all I can say.” Apparently it was not all Comey could say, since he added: “When I hear that kind of language used, it’s concerning because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance.” And, having quite a bit to say, he kept talking: “I have never thought of that as spying.”

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Comey was anxious to echo the narrative advanced by those in opposition to the president that court-ordered electronic surveillance is somehow different or less distasteful than the untidy, morally fluid concept of spying.  

He can seek to take shelter in the softer “surveillance” word, but here is what he and McCabe unleashed on an American citizen involved on the outskirts of a presidential campaign: A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court-ordered electronic surveillance allows the FBI leeway to intercept more than telephone and computer communications. It allows the clandestine microphone and camera capture of the target at all times and in all places, even the most intimate, of his daily life. It is more intrusive than even a Title III criminal wiretap of a drug dealer or mob boss.

So, in a way, Comey is right. FISA court-ordered electronic surveillance is different than spying. It is the epitome of government power over an individual’s privacy. It is the nuclear option in the world of intelligence collection.  

And it is indeed used appropriately against foreign nationals actively spying on U.S. interests and, yes, even U.S. citizens who hold security clearances and possess national security information and demonstrate a willingness to turn over such information to another country.  

However, a FISA order, until now, has never been used by an FBI director and deputy director to intercept an individual with no clearances and no obvious access to sensitive information but who happens to be involved in a presidential campaign.

One would think, then, that Comey and McCabe would have made darn sure that the reasons provided to the FISA court to intercept Trump campaign adviser Carter Page would be incredibly compelling and built on a solid foundation of facts.   

Instead, by their own admission, they relied mostly on a Russian-influenced dossier, the source and funding of which they did not fully disclose to the court. A dossier that Comey himself described as “salacious and unverified,” and yet he still signed off on several renewals of the intrusive interception of Page.  

Incredibly, on the day he was fired, Comey maintained that he still didn’t know if there was anything to the collusion investigation he initiated between the Trump campaign and Russia.  

The silly semantical jousting over “spying” versus “surveillance” is a distraction. The real concern among the “collusionistas” is that AG Barr has launched his own review into the origins of Comey’s and McCabe’s investigation of the Trump campaign. This is entirely appropriate, given the suggestions that they acted improperly, with political bias, on the thinnest of information.

Such a review could lead to some extremely uncomfortable days for those who have favored leveraging the powerful authorities of government for the benefit of one political party over another. 

Mr. Barr added one other very important point. He stated he wasn’t launching an investigation of the FBI, per se, but, “I think there was probably a failure among a group of leaders there at the upper echelon.”

Just as blunt, but perhaps the understatement of the year.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.