At ReaclClearPolitics yesterday, the invaluable Eric Felten took a deep dive into the testimony of former FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap before the House last year (and do read the whole thing). President Merkin Muffley explained in Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” By the same token, Priestap explained to Congress: “You can’t ‘spy’ here. This is the FBI.”
Eric tells the story:
Weeks before Priestap’s testimony was taken last summer, the efforts of Halper, an American scholar who works in Britain, had been exposed. Republicans had been spluttering with outrage that the FBI would deploy a spy against an American presidential campaign. Democrats had been countering that while the bureau used informants, only the ignorant and uninitiated would call them spies.
Democratic staff counsel Valerie Shen tried to use her questioning of Priestap to put the spying issue to bed. “Does the FBI use spies?” she asked the assistant director for counterintelligence (who would be in a position to know).
“What do you mean?” Priestap responded. “I guess, what is your definition of a spy?”
“Good question,” said Shen. “What is your definition of a spy?”
Before Priestap answered, his lawyer, Mitch Ettinger, intervened. “Just one second,” he said. Then Ettinger – who was one of President Bill Clinton’s attorneys during the Paula Jones/Monica Lewinsky scandal – conferred with his client.
Back on the record, Priestap presented what smacks of pre-approved testimony: “I’ve not heard of nor have I referred to FBI personnel or the people we engage with as – meaning who are working in assistance to us – as spies. We do evidence and intelligence collection in furtherance of our investigations.”
Shen was happy with the answer, and so she asked Priestap to confirm it: “So in your experience the FBI doesn’t use the term ‘spy’ in any of its investigative techniques?” Priestap assured her the word is never spoken by law-enforcement professionals – except, he said (wandering dangerously off-script), when referring to “foreign spies.”
“But in terms of one of its own techniques,” Shen said, determined to get Priestap back on track, “the FBI does not refer to one of its own techniques as spying?”
“That is correct, yes.”
“With that definition in mind, would the FBI internally ever describe themselves as spying on American citizens?”
The spying on the 2016 Trump presidential campaign is the biggest scandal in American political history. Whatever other scandal you might nominate doesn’t come close. And rather than Dr. Strangelove I should be quoting the authorities of Oceania in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
We may have no more than the next 20 months to get to the bottom of the scandal. Attorney General Barr can’t afford to waste one minute.