WASHINGTON (Circa) — On Monday, President Donald Trump met with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after the president demanded an investigation into whether his campaign was the subject of improper government surveillance.
The meeting follows more than a year of allegations by President Trump and his allies that members of Barack Obama's administration targeted his campaign for improper surveillance later used to initiate the special counsel investigation.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump first claimed Obama had his "wires tapped." It was largely dismissed at the time by fact-checkers and former members of the Obama administration who denied the president would or could order that kind of surveillance of a political opponent.
In the months that followed, the American public learned at least one member of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Carter Page, was monitored as part of an FBI counterintelligence investigation launched in the summer of 2016. The investigation pertained to Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible coordination with individuals in the Trump campaign.
One FBI informant was described in detail in numerous media accounts as a retired American professor and longtime U.S. intelligence source who reached out to the Trump campaign officials between July and September 2016. The source was then outted as Stefan Halper, a 73-year-old retired Cambridge University professor who previously worked in the Carter and Reagan administration.
Important details about the informant (or informants) remain unclear, most importantly, whether his role in the investigation was professional or political.
The president seized on the reports as evidence of an intelligence plot against him, directed by former President Barack Obama and Justice Department officials.
"Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI 'SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT,'" Trump tweeted on Thursday.
He followed up the next day, writing, "Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president. It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a 'hot' Fake News story. If true - all time biggest political scandal!"
Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president. It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a “hot” Fake News story. If true - all time biggest political scandal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2018
By Sunday, President Trump called on his Department of Justice to formally investigate "whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!"
Within hours of the tweet, the Department of Justice issued a statement saying it responded to the president's request by asking the Inspector General to investigate "any impropriety or political motivation" in the FBI's handling of the 2016 counterintelligence investigation.
"If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action," Rosenstein said.
I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2018
There is little doubt about the FBI's investigation of Trump associates. Congressional investigators confirmed the FBI authorized surveillance of Carter Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Page, at the time, was a Trump campaign official working on foreign policy. He had multiple contacts with Russian intelligence officials and was warned by the FBI that he was a potential target for recruitment.
The FBI reportedly had similar concerns about George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, who was in contact with Moscow regarding compromising emails about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The real question is whether the surveillance was the result of a political directive or a legitimate counterintelligence investigation, according to Rick Smith, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent and founder of Cannon Street, Inc.
"If this effort came from the Obama administration, was directed by Department of Justice under the Obama administration that's unacceptable," Smith said. "If it's a politically inspired investigation, that's a whole lot different from what the FBI should do in a counterintelligence investigation."
The mere fact that Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian intelligence officials and were potentially recruitment targets would require a foreign counterintelligence investigation, Smith said.
The possibility of a "political motivation" for the investigation, is the essence of what the Inspector General will investigate, according to the Department of Justice.
As far as the FBI's alleged use of one or more informants to glean information from or about the Trump campaign, former agency officials said that kind of operation would have had to be approved at the highest levels of the agency.
"This type of an investigation is extraordinarily sensitive," explained Ray Batvinis, a historian and former FBI agent with a concentration in counterintelligence matters. "Based on my experience, these investigations or the use of an informant like this would be coordinated at the very highest levels of the Department of Justice."
Based on FBI guidelines, a "sensitive investigative matter" involving the activities of a U.S. public official or political candidate is subject to extra scrutiny and requires specific authorization from the bureau's leadership and the Department of Justice. At the time, that almost certainly would have included then-FBI Director James Comey, Assistant Director Andrew McCabe, the assistant directors of the Counterintelligence Division, and officials in the Department of Justice.
The FBI also requires a credible basis for its investigation, whether its an investigation into national security or foreign intelligence threats, or criminal conduct.
James Wedick, former FBI special agent, insisted the FBI could not have used an informant to infiltrate a political organization without approval from FBI headquarters, senior leadership in the Department of Justice and a special review by Justice Department's Undercover Review Committee.
"Without a clear criminal predicate the FBI could not conduct an INTEL investigation into a political organization," Wedick asserted. "To date, I have 'not' seen anything that articulates a clear criminal predicate. Collusion is 'not' a crime."
Based on reports, there is no clear answer to key questions about the alleged FBI informant. It is not clear how he came to be involved in the counterintelligence investigation, whether he was contacted by the agency or personally offered assistance. It's not clear what information he provided or the types of actions he took to gather that information.
It is not even clear whether the FBI's human source for information on the Trump campaign was indeed an informant, a spy or "embedded" in the campaign. Each case may apply.
Smith suggested, "It may be a cooperating witness, it may be what most FBI agents would think of as someone who is a papered source, who is on the books as an informant."
It could have been an established FBI source coming forward to provide information about allegations of criminal or counterintelligence activity relating to the Trump organization or foreign influence on the election, he continued. "That's often how these things start," Smith said, with an allegation that a certain individual is involved in something suspicious.
While the different words conjure up different images in the public imagination, the question is still whether one or more FBI informants were directed to "spy" on the campaign for political purposes or as part of a legitimate counterintelligence probe.
"I don't think the public understands the nature of what the FBI does from a foreign counterintelligence standpoint," Smith asserted.
Under FBI guidelines, the agency is obligated to look into matters relating to foreign powers that impact national security and specifies "espionage and other intelligence activities, sabotage" and other activities "conducted by, for, or on behalf of foreign powers." Under the agency's post-9/11 guidelines, the FBI has a broad range of authority and discretion on the methods it uses, including human sources, to pursue such foreign intelligence threats.
The outstanding questions about whether the agency had political motivations in pursuing Trump campaign associates will be left to both Robert Mueller and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Meanwhile, Republican members of the House of Representatives have called for the creation of a second special counsel to investigate the FBI's actions. The House intelligence committee is also investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, including seeking classified documents related to the FBI's informant. Those documents were reportedly discussed at the Monday White House meeting with Trump, Wray and Rosenstein.
House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., subpoenaed documents related to the informant months ago. Nunes told Sinclair in an exclusive interview last week he hopes the documents will answer questions about why the FBI began its July 2016 investigation in the first place.
"There's no question our subpoena is valid. Our request for information is valid and I think they've been ordered by the White House to give us the information," Nunes said. Earlier this month, Nunes met directly with Rosenstein. After warning the deputy attorney general he was in contempt of Congress, Nunes said left the meeting confident his committee will receive the documents "any day."
Smith encouraged a swift and fair investigation of the issue by the inspector general. That includes reviewing the role of top FBI officials like James Comey and Andrew McCabe, as well as lower-level officials like Peter Strzok and Lisa Page who were implicated through text messages as having "political vendetta" against Trump.
"I don't know if he can leave it hanging like it is right now," he continued. "It doesn't look good if what Trump is saying is correct. The thing is a mess because there's a kind of certainty that some of the top officials in the FBI are tarnished in this."
Even if the inspector general does not find evidence of political bias, it will take years for the bureau to repair its scarred reputation, Smith added. "It's going to take a generation to get out of this."