As Attorney General, Barr Engaged in ‘Unauthorized Surveillance’

The big takeaway from Attorney General Barr’s testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee is that he stated unequivocally that the government spied on the Trump campaign and that he will investigate whether there was an evidentiary basis for those activities. Later in his testimony, he walked back his use of the word “spy” by substituting it with the phrase “unauthorized surveillance.”

In a situation that is almost too serendipitous to be real, that testimony came two weeks after the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a report on DEA’s use of administrative subpoenas to engage in surveillance activities. As it turns out, one of the programs they investigated was initiated by Barr when he served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration.

The Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr launched a vast surveillance program that gathered records of innocent Americans’ international phone calls without first conducting a review of whether it was legal, the department’s inspector general concluded Thursday.

It happened in 1992, the last time Barr served as attorney general.

The secret program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, ultimately gathered billions of records of nearly all phone calls from the United States to 116 countries, with little oversight from Congress or the courts, a USA TODAY investigation found.

Not only did the Justice Department fail to conduct a legal review prior to launching this surveillance program, they implemented it will little oversight. What the Inspector General found troubling was that the program was used to “collect data in bulk without making a prior finding that the records were, in the statutory provision enabling DEA’s subpoena authority, ‘relevant or material’ to any specific defined investigation.” The report goes on to say that the data was used “in support of investigations by non-DEA federal agencies that had no apparent connection to specific drug investigations,” which was clearly illegal.

If any of that sounds familiar, it is because this is the program that was used as a blueprint for meta-data surveillance launched by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks as part of the “war on terror.”

During his testimony on Wednesday, Barr emphasized that one of the principle roles of the attorney general is to make sure that government power is not abused. But just as we’ve seen with his emphasis on transparency, his actions are often at odds with his words. The idea that he is suddenly concerned about the abuse of government power via “unauthorized surveillance” just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.