In an interview with NBC News, Attorney General William Barr said the most dangerous fact revealed by the Inspector General's report on the FBI's surveillance of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign is that the "incumbent government" used its powers "to spy on political opponents" in a way that could have affected the election.
He added that, as far as he knows, this was the "first time in history" the federal government used "counter-intelligence techniques against a presidential campaign."
During the Dec. 10 interview with NBC News correspondent Pete Williams, the host asked Barr, “As a policy matter, why not open an investigation on a thin pretext? I guess on the one hand you can say, it’s a presidential campaign, it’s very sensitive, you need better evidence. On the other hand, you can say, it’s a presidential campaign, we have to be very careful, there could be a threat to our political process.”
Barr replied, “I think probably from a civil liberties standpoint, the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government use the apparatus of the state – principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies -- both to spy on political opponents but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election."
“As far as I’m aware," said Barr, "this is the first time in history that this has been done to a presidential campaign, and the use of these counter-intelligence techniques against a presidential campaign."
“And we have to remember, in today’s world presidential campaigns are frequently in contact with foreign persons," said Barr. "And indeed, in most campaigns there are signs of illegal foreign money coming in."
"[But] we don’t automatically assume that the campaigns are nefarious, traitors acting in league with foreign powers," said the attorney general. "There has to be some basis before we use these potent powers in our core First Amendment activity."
For the FBI to launch the Russia probe, "I felt this was very flimsy," said Barr. "Basically, I believe the Department [of Justice] has a rule of reason, which is, at the end of the day, is what you’re relying on sufficiently powerful to justify the techniques you’re using? The question there is, how strong is the evidence? How sensitive is the activity you’re looking at, and what are the alternatives?"
“When you step back here and say, what was this all based on, it’s not sufficient," he said.
“Remember, there was and never has been any evidence of collusion," said the attorney general, "and yet this campaign and the president’s administration has been dominated by this investigation into what turns out to be completely baseless."
Earlier in the interview, Barr said, "I think our nation was turned on its head for three years based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press."
"I think there were gross abuses," he added, "and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI."