Comey feels the heat

Things haven’t gone well for James Comey lately. First, his friend Robert Mueller found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and did not find that President Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey or by any other action. And now Attorney General William Barr says he needs to explore whether the intelligence community engaged in improper spying on the Trump campaign.

Comey responded to Barr’s statements, saying:

With respect to Barr’s comments, I really don’t know what he’s talking about when he talks about spying on the campaign,. It’s very concerning because the FBI, the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. I have never thought of that as spying.

Comey contradicts himself. First, he claims that he doesn’t know what Barr is talking about when he says there was spying. He then promptly shows that he knows exactly what Barr is talking about but disagrees with it.

Moreover, Barr’s remarks take full note of the fact that the electronic surveillance of the Trump campaign was court-ordered. What Barr says he will explore is whether the order was “adequately predicated” — in other words, whether Comey’s FBI obtained authorization legitimately.

Barr is saying that spying occurred but it might not have been proper. Comey is saying spying didn’t occur because the surveillance was proper.

Since Barr is taking no position at this point as to whether the surveillance was proper, Comey’s dispute with him is a semantic one.

Barr has the better of the semantics. Tapping someone’s phone is a form of spying on that person, court order or not. A court order doesn’t change the nature of the act it authorizes, it just affirms its legality. But the semantics don’t matter because Barr agrees with Comey that if the spying was pursuant to a court order properly obtained, then the spying is not problematic.

Barr is right to say, though, that “spying on a political campaign is a big deal.” No one who is committed to true democracy would deny this. That’s why Barr wants to make sure that the electronic surveillance of Trump’s campaign and the other forms of spying that occurred were “properly predicated.”

Good for Barr.

If Comey’s FBI conducted itself properly in obtaining its court orders, the former director has nothing to worry about. But that’s a big “if.”

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