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Was the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign driven by evidence or politics?

President Donald Trump waves while walking away after speaking to the media, as he walks to the Marine One helicopter Friday, May 25, 2018, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As more information becomes public about the FBI’s probe of ties between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian effort to influence the election, the president and others say a picture is emerging of a politically-motivated investigation that used dubious evidence to justify surveilling his aides to build a still-unproven case for collusion, but some say officials had valid reasons for their suspicions.

“We now have a lot of information to piece together,” Sharyl Attkisson, host of Sinclair’s “Full Measure,” said in an interview with KABB Friday.

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Attkisson detailed evidence she believes supports the contention that the investigation was deployed against Trump for political purposes. Among those eight signs were many of the techniques investigators reportedly used to gather information on the actions of Trump aides.

“There are several of them, such as unprecedented unmaskings, the surveillance of, as far as we know—there may be more—at least seven Trump associates using wiretaps or other electronic surveillance,” Attkisson told WBFF Friday.

She pointed to news reports indicating Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, his attorney Michael Cohen, son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and advisers Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos came under some degree of surveillance in the course of the investigation.

“U.S. citizens are supposed to rarely, if ever, be spied upon by the government,” she said. “There are very strict rules about that. So the notion that that happened to at least seven people affiliated with the Trump campaign is questionable.”

In the case of Page, agents obtained a FISA order to monitor his communications in part based on a dossier of unverified allegations compiled by a former British spy working for a research firm being paid by Democrats. Republicans have claimed FISA judges were not sufficiently informed of the partisan nature of the document.

Attkisson also raised concerns about a large number of requests to unmask the identities of Americans picked up in incidental intelligence collection, including Trump advisers. Flynn’s name was unmasked and leaked to the media after a December 2016 conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was intercepted during surveillance of Kislyak.

“This was done by government officials routinely,” she told KABB. “It’s supposed to almost never be done.”

Former Obama administration officials have defended their unmasking requests, arguing the identities of the Americans being discussed were integral to understanding the value of the intelligence. Several officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have also denied under oath before Congress that they ever leaked information about unmasked individuals to the media.

One example cited by Attkisson was then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who unmasked Bannon, Flynn, and Kushner’s involvement in a meeting with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates in December 2016. According to CNN, Rice told the House Intelligence Committee she sought the identities of the participants because she was trying to find out why the prince was in the country and the UAE had not informed U.S. officials of the trip.

The tactics reportedly used in the Russia probe—surveillance, informants, national security letters—are commonly deployed in criminal and counterintelligence investigations, according to John Iannarelli, a former FBI special agent and national spokesperson. However, he acknowledged the unusual political dynamics of the situation invite scrutiny.

“What’s different here is, while these are commonly used techniques, we’re now using techniques in the middle of a presidential campaign involving one candidate,” he said.

Anytime the FBI conducts an investigation involving a politician or campaign, allegations of bias emerge from one side or the other. The probe of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server that was closed, reopened, and closed again before the election continues to stir controversy among Democrats and Republicans.

“I haven’t seen anything to indicate the FBI has done anything inappropriate,” Iannarelli said of the Russia investigation. “There’s allegations of Russian involvement and interest in the election… Regardless of politics, this is what the American people want from the FBI, to make sure we’re protected against nefarious foreign influence.”

Other former FBI officials disagree. Retired FBI agent James Wedick, who once led a public corruption unit in California, shares Attkisson’s concerns about the motivation behind the probe, questioning what basis investigators had to target Trump campaign advisers.

“National security is not a clear criminal predicate,” he said. “You need fraud, you need a crime. Collusion is not a crime. If you were just allowed to say, ‘Because of national security, we’re going to do such and such,’ every four years the party in power would allege, ‘Because of this, we’re going to do that,’ against the opposition party.”

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has argued in the National Review that officials designated this case a counterintelligence investigation instead of a criminal one specifically because they had no criminal predicate.

Wedick fears proper procedures were not followed by senior FBI officials in authorizing intrusive investigative measures.

“I think what happened here, it looks like we got some administrators in D.C. headed by [then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew] McCabe and, from on high, he starts pushing this agenda down,” he said.

McCabe was fired by the FBI days before retirement earlier this year after being accused of lying repeatedly to the DOJ inspector general’s office about leaks to the media that he authorized about an investigation of the Clinton Foundation. He has denied willfully misleading investigators, but his case has been referred to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.

The prevalence of leaks from the Russia investigation that have been damaging to Trump is another sign Attkisson says suggests this was a politically-motivated counterintelligence operation.

“There’s been a steady and apparently orchestrated campaign of leaks — some true, some false, but nearly all of them damaging to President Trump’s interests,” she wrote in The Hill.

In addition, Attkisson accused Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan of using media connections to “shape the news narrative” around issues under investigation. Both men are currently paid analysts for cable news channels.

New questions have arisen after recent reports that an FBI informant met with three Trump campaign aides in the early stages of the investigation. Multiple media outlets have identified the informant as Stefan Halper, a Cambridge professor who previously served as an aide to three Republican presidents.

Since news of Halper’s role was reported last weekend, President Trump has hammered what he now calls “Spygate” as “one of the biggest political scandals in history.” Trump has repeatedly claimed without proof that Democrats placed a spy inside his campaign for political purposes.

Halper reportedly met with Page, Papadopoulos, and campaign co-chair Sam Clovis in an attempt to determine whether they had ties to the Russian effort to influence the election. President Trump has asserted that Halper was inserted into his campaign as a “spy,” but no evidence has surfaced to suggest he ever worked for the campaign.

"A confidential informant is not a spy," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Friday, adding that the president should “probably not” be using the term “Spygate.”

Democrats who attended a high-level briefing on documents related to Halper’s role in the investigation Thursday said afterward they saw nothing to substantiate Trump’s claim that a spy infiltrated his campaign. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he learned “nothing particularly surprising” in the briefing, but he did not elaborate.

“It doesn’t look like this source actually went into a campaign but rather met with people involved in a campaign outside the campaign offices,” Iannarelli said. “That’s an important distinction.”

Wedick observed that the FBI manual has an entire section on using criminal informants in “sensitive” circumstances like a political campaign, and the standard for doing so is high.

“I can tell you what a climb it is to do this sort of thing,” he said, having gone through that process repeatedly when he was running a three-year undercover investigation of the California state legislature.

Since this was an investigation of Russian intelligence operations rather than a traditional probe of criminal activity within a campaign, Iannarelli suggested that process may not have applied.

“It’s not a political campaign,” Iannarelli said. “You are looking at a foreign state’s activities that are trying allegedly to infiltrate the U.S. election system.”

His response echoed comments made by Clapper on “The View” earlier this week when asked if the FBI was spying on Trump’s campaign.

“No, they were not,” Clapper said. “They were spying on, a term I don’t particularly like, but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence which is what they do.”

The counterintelligence investigation, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” was reportedly kept very quiet, with only a handful of top agents and senior officials involved. Sources told the New York Times the circle was kept small to avoid information leaking and impacting the election.

Unlike a typical investigation run by agents in a field office reporting to a special agent in charge who then reports to headquarters, this probe appears to have been run from the top. That could have resulted in standard levels of oversight being bypassed.

“In the case of the Trump campaign, the investigation itself was being run at the headquarters level, so who is looking at things objectively to determine whether or not it’s in the best interest of the country or the FBI?” Iannarelli said.

“That’s why you don’t have an administrator doing the work of a corruption officer,” Wedick said.

The Department of Justice and congressional leaders continue to battle over records from the investigation that might answer questions Attkisson and others have been asking about the role of politics in the case. The DOJ still claims some documents sought by Republicans cannot be made public, but laying it all out on the table may be inevitable at this point.

“The optics of it is the reason people are questioning whether everything was done effectively,” Iannarelli said. “At some point, the FBI is going to have to demonstrate to those in power and the public that they followed the established rules.”

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