FBI director says he wouldn't use 'spying' to describe investigations

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that he wouldn’t use the term “spying” to describe lawful FBI investigative activities in response to a question about Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP DOJ, Commerce slam House Dems contempt vote as 'political stunt' White House blasts 'shameful and cynical' Barr, Ross contempt vote MORE's controversial use of the word at a hearing last month.

“Well, that’s not the term I would use,” Wray said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing when asked about Barr's use of the term to describe the FBI’s surveillance of members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

ADVERTISEMENT

Wray went on to emphasize the importance of ensuring that any surveillance is done consistent with the law.

“Well, I mean, look, lots of people have different colloquial phrases. I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes,” Wray told Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenEpstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities Crucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research MORE (D-N.H.). 

“To me, the key question is making sure that it is done by the book, consistent with our lawful authorities," Wray said. “That’s the key question. Different people use different colloquial phrases.”

Barr told senators on the same subcommittee last month that he was reviewing the “genesis and conduct” of intelligence collection on the Trump campaign, saying he believed the campaign was spied on.

“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr said. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.” 

Barr later emphasized that he wasn’t saying that “improper surveillance” occurred, but that he was looking into whether it had.

Shaheen told Wray on Tuesday that she was “concerned” about Barr’s use of the term, describing it as a “very loaded word” that “conjures a criminal connotation.” 

The Justice Department inspector general is currently reviewing whether the FBI followed appropriate procedures in applying for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Republicans have alleged the FBI improperly relied on details from the dossier compiled by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to apply for the warrant to wiretap Page. 

The surveillance activity was part of the early investigation into Russian interference and links between the Trump campaign and Moscow that eventually spawned special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s probe. 

Wray on Tuesday hesitated to answer questions from Shaheen about whether he believed specifically that FBI agents had “spied” on the Trump campaign, pointing to the ongoing investigation.

“I want to be careful about how I answer that question here because there is an ongoing inspector general investigation,” Wray said. “I have my own thoughts on limited information I have seen so far but I don’t think it would be right or appropriate for me to share those at this stage because I really do think it’s important for everybody to respect the independent inspector general’s investigation, which I think this line of questioning starts to implicate.”

Wray later said he did not have any evidence personally that the FBI engaged in illegal surveillance during the campaign. 

“I don’t think I personally have any evidence of that sort,” Wray told Shaheen.

Barr has said he is reviewing Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s findings, which are expected to be released in May or June, and determine whether there are avenues he needs to further investigate.

Wray, who was appointed FBI director by President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE to replace James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFBI's spreadsheet puts a stake through the heart of Steele's dossier Hannity invites Ocasio-Cortez to join prime-time show for full hour The Hill's 12:30 Report: Acosta under fire over Epstein plea deal MORE, said Tuesday he and Barr had been in “fairly close contact” about his review and described it as “appropriate.” 

“He’s trying to get a better understanding of the circumstances at the department and the FBI surrounding the initiation of this particular investigation,” Wray said. “He and I have been in fairly close contact about it and we are trying to work together to help him get the understanding that he needs on that subject. I think that’s appropriate.”

Barr’s decision has inspired cheers from Republicans and Trump, who has long alleged the original Russia counterintelligence probe was started by agents biased against him.

Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranEpstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse Bottom Line Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Kan.) said earlier in the hearing that he believed it to be of “value” for Barr to review the legality of the surveillance activity during the campaign.