William Barr
William Barr Image Credit: Bloomberg

WASHINGTON: Attorney General William Barr has assigned the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut to examine the origins of the Russia investigation, according to two people familiar with the matter, a move that President Donald Trump has long called for but that could anger law enforcement officials who insist that scrutiny of the Trump campaign was lawful.

John H. Durham, the US attorney in Connecticut, has a history of serving as a special prosecutor investigating potential wrongdoing among national security officials, including the FBI’s ties to a crime boss in Boston and accusations of CIA abuses of detainees.

His inquiry is the third known investigation focused on the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation during the 2016 presidential campaign into possible ties between Russia’s election interference and Trump associates.

The department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, is separately examining investigators’ use of wiretap applications and informants and whether any political bias against Trump influenced investigative decisions. And John W. Huber, the US attorney in Utah, has been reviewing aspects of the Russia investigation. His findings have not been announced.

Additionally on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican-South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he, too, intends to review aspects of law enforcement’s work in the coming months. And Republicans conducted their own inquiries when they controlled the House, including publicising details of the FBI’s wiretap use.

Thomas Carson, a spokesman for Durham’s office, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “I do have people in the department helping me review the activities over the summer of 2016,” Barr said in congressional testimony May 1, without elaborating.

Durham, who was nominated by Trump in 2017 and has been a Justice Department lawyer since 1982, has conducted special investigations under administrations of both parties. Attorney General Janet Reno asked Durham in 1999 to investigate the FBI’s handling of a notorious informant: organised crime leader James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.

In 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey assigned Durham to investigate the CIA’s destruction of videotapes in 2005 showing the torture of terrorism suspects. A year later, Attorney General Eric Holder expanded Durham’s mandate to also examine whether the agency broke any laws in its abuses of detainees in its custody.

Barr has signalled his concerns about the Russia investigation during congressional testimony, particularly the surveillance of Trump associates. “I think spying did occur,” he said. “The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.”

His use of the term “spying” to describe court-authorised surveillance aimed at understanding a foreign government’s interference in the election touched off criticism that he was echoing politically charged accusations by Trump and his Republican allies that the FBI unfairly targeted the Trump campaign.

Last week, the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, defended the bureau, saying he was unaware of any illegal surveillance and refused to call agents’ work “spying”. Former FBI and Justice Department officials have defended the genesis of the investigation, saying it was properly predicated.

Yet Durham’s role — essentially giving him a special assignment but no special powers — also appeared aimed at sidestepping the rare appointment of another special counsel like Robert Mueller, a role that allows greater day-to-day independence.

The Mueller report reaffirmed that the FBI opened its investigation based on legitimate factors, including revelations that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had told a diplomat from Australia, a close US ally, that he was informed that the Russians had stolen Democratic emails.

“It would have been highly, highly inappropriate for us not to pursue it — and pursue it aggressively,” James Baker, who was the FBI’s general counsel in 2016, said in an interview Friday with the “Lawfare” podcast.

As part of the Russia inquiry, the FBI investigated four Trump associates: Papadopoulos; Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman; Michael T. Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser; and Carter Page, another campaign foreign policy adviser.

Flynn and Papadopoulos later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the inquiry; Manafort was convicted of tax fraud and other charges brought by the special counsel, who took over the investigation in May 2017, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors also obtained approval from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Page after he left the campaign. Trump’s allies have pointed to the warrant as major evidence that law enforcement officials were abusing their authority, but the investigation was opened based on separate information and the warrant was one small aspect in a sprawling inquiry that grew to include more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and about 500 witness interviews.

Law enforcement officials have also drawn intense criticism for using an informant — a typical investigative step — to secretly report on Page and Papadopoulos after they left the campaign and for relying on Democrat-funded opposition research compiled into a dossier by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who was also an FBI informant.

Investigators cited the dossier in a lengthy footnote in its application for permission to wiretap Page, alerting the court that the person who commissioned Steele’s research was “likely looking for information to discredit” the Trump campaign.

The inspector general is said to be examining whether law enforcement officials intentionally misled the intelligence court, which also approved three renewals of the warrant. The last application in June 2017 was signed by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who defended the decision last month in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.