When Attorney General Bill Barr acknowledged last week that he believed “spying did occur” during the 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic outrage centered on his use of the word spying, something the FBI insists it never does.
It is true that government investigators used Stefan Halper, a Cambridge-based professor, to invite various Trump advisers to Britain so he could wine and dine them while pumping them for damaging information he would later turn over to intelligence contacts in Washington, but that apparently doesn’t make him a spy nor mean his handlers were engaged in spying. Those who, like the attorney general, think differently just aren’t with the program and, as one senator put it, “owe the FBI an apology.”
Just as President Bill Clinton tried to wiggle off the hook when accused of lying by arguing that what he meant turned on the meaning of “is,” the legitimacy of the reaction to Attorney General Barr’s use of the word “spy” depends not on what Mr. Halper and others did, but on what he and the rest of us mean when we use the word.
Most of us would agree that if “A” pays “B” to get close to “C” and report back what he learns, “A” would be spying on “C” and “B” would be a spy. It turns out that in the eyes of our intelligence services if “A” is, say, Russia and “B” reports back on his or her conversations with “C,” “C” is a spy and “A” is spying through “C” on “B.” That is logical and consistent with the popular understanding of the meaning of “spy” and “spying.”
All of this changes, however, if “A” is one of our intelligence gathering services like the FBI or the CIA because, as an FBI official told Congress last year the words spy and spying are simply not used by the FBI. So if the FBI is “A” and hires “B” to report back on “C,” “A” is not spying and “B” is not a spy.
Edward William Priestap, former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, explained all this to the House Judiciary Committee last year, when he was questioned about whether the Bureau used Cambridge professor Stef Halper to spy on Trump advisors he invited to meet with him in Britain as part of the FBI’s “Crossfire-Hurricane” operation launched to see if Mr. Trump’s advisers were colluding with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A Democratic staff member, according to recently released transcripts of Mr. Priestap’s testimony, asked a series of questions allowing the former FBI official to explain that he and his colleagues never use that particular word. When asked if the FBI ever uses spies, Mr. Priestap responded by asking “what is your definition of a spy?” and then, after conferring with his lawyer informed her that “I’ve not heard nor have I referred to FBI personnel or the people we engage with us — meaning who are working in assistance to us — as spies,” adding that the term is used to only to refer to “foreign spies” who spy on us.
The Democratic staffer then asked “With that definition in mind, would the FBI internally ever describe themselves as spying on American citizens?” No doubt breathing a sigh of relief, Mr. Priestap simply said “No.”
In reporting on this exchange, RealClearInvestigation’s Eric Felton concluded that “The FBI could not possibly have spied on the Trump campaign because bureau lingo includes neither the noun “spy” nor the verb “to spy.” Whatever informants may have been employed they didn’t spy on the Trump campaign — didn’t spy by definition, as the bureau doesn’t use the term (except, of course, to describe the very same activities when undertaken by foreigners).”
One suspects that the old saying that no matter how much lipstick one puts on a pig, it’s still a pig applies here. Last year as the Halper story developed, The New York Times and other media, refused to use the word, carefully describing what the FBI was doing was “intelligence gathering,” but spying by any other name is still spying, and it is obvious that the new attorney general is taking his definition from the same dictionary the rest of us use rather than from the FBI rewrite.
The Merriam-Webster definition of a spy includes “one who keeps secret watch on a person or thing to obtain information.” That would be Stefan Halper and those who put him up to it engaged in spying. It’s really just that simple.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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