Attorney General William Barr spent two days on Capitol Hill this week, ostensibly to testify on his department’s fiscal 2020 budget request.
But as is often the case in Congress, precious few questions were related to the subject of the hearing.
Mr. Barr on Tuesday said he expected to release a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election in about a week. He said he would answer questions about the report, his decisions and the redactions once he finished.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Barr created confusion when he appeared to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed spying had occurred against the Trump campaign.
In questioning from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, Mr. Barr said, “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal” and that “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was … adequately predicated.”
This set off a firestorm in Washington.
Did the FBI conduct unauthorized surveillance of the Trump campaign in the fall of 2016?
Mr. Barr said, “I believe there is a basis for my concern, but I’m not going to discuss it.”
Later in the same hearing, he clarified his earlier comments.
“I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying I am concerned about it and looking into it, that’s all.”
He has not determined whether the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants were inappropriately approved, but he is looking into it.
“Crossfire Hurricane” was the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump campaign associates, which President Trump has called “Spygate.”
The FBI used an informant named Stefan Halper, who throughout the operation made direct contact with George Papadopoulos, Carter Page and Sam Clovis.
Perhaps the most important development is the revelation that Mr. Barr has formed a team at the Justice Department to review controversial decisions made by Justice and FBI officials in the counterintelligence investigation.
“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of the intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Mr. Barr said during the hearing.
This review could yield important information.
Was the Steele dossier the beneficiary of Russian intelligence? Were the FISA courts appropriately aware of who was funding the Steele dossier? Were there leaks of classified information throughout the process that violated the law? Was there unlawful unmasking of Americans by Obama administration officials?
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, has said he is investigating many of these issues. But the fact that the attorney general is also reviewing the origin of the counterintelligence operation, which ultimately led to the special counsel inquiry, is by itself very important.
If laws were broken, those individuals should be prosecuted.
Just as Americans believed that anyone who conspired or coordinated with Russia in the election deserved to face punishment, so should anyone who used our intelligence apparatus against American citizens in an election.
The partisan war on Mr. Barr is already underway and it will soon intensify.
Democrats are demanding the full Mueller report without any redactions, which they will immediately leak to friendly journalists. But even that won’t be enough. They are demanding to see all of the underlying evidence that Mr. Mueller collected.
The hunters have been on the move for two years.
Now they are the hunted.
• Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.