Does Barr think Obama officials committed treason? "Not as a legal matter, no"

Barr: Obama officials did not commit treason

Last Updated May 31, 2019 2:45 PM EDT

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Attorney General William Barr said he does not think some Obama-era Justice Department officials who oversaw the Russia investigation committed treason.

"Not as a legal matter, no," Barr told CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford when asked if he believed senior officials in the Obama administration committed treason, an accusation Mr. Trump has repeatedly made. 

Pressed on whether he had concerns about the way these officials conducted the investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow, the attorney general replied, "Yes."

"Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they're doing is in the higher interest and better good," he said during an exclusive interview in Alaska on Thursday. "They don't realize that what they're doing is really antithetical to the democratic system that we have."

Barr feels that foreign meddling in U.S. elections and governmental abuse of power are "both troubling," declining to say whether one is worse than the other when he was asked. He talked with Crawford about a "Praetorian Guard mentality" that occurs when government officials "get very arrogant." They "identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion...is somehow an enemy of the state."  

Crawford asked whether he thought this was the case in the 2016 election. Barr replied, "I just think it has to be carefully look at because the use of foreign intelligence capabilities and counterintelligence capabilities against an American political campaign to me is unprecedented and it's a serious red line that's been crossed."

He said that there were "counterintelligence activities undertaken against the Trump campaign" in 2016. There may have been a basis for those activities, Barr acknowledged, but he wants "to see what that basis was and make sure it was legitimate."

After multiple calls by Mr. Trump to "investigate the investigators," the attorney general earlier this month tapped the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, John Durham, to lead an investigation into the origins of the Russian inquiry. 

This will be the third probe of the Russia investigation, although Barr seemed to indicate that the three investigations were not taking place at the same time. Barr explained that the first, led by the Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber, was "put on hold" while the Justice Department's inspector general conducted its review of possible bias among Justice Department officials and whether government surveillance of the Trump campaign was appropriate. Barr told Crawford Huber "has not been active on this front in recent months, so Durham is taking over that role." 

Last week, the president granted Barr sweeping powers to declassify counterintelligence information and ordered the nation's intelligence agencies to cooperate with the attorney general's review. A White House memo said said Barr had been "delegated full and complete authority to declassify information" related to the investigation. 

Crawford asked Barr whether he had asked the president for the authority to declassify.

"Yes," he replied, and he also said that he had spoken with intelligence community leaders, who told him they would be supportive. While he said that in "extraordinary circumstance," he has the the authority to declassify information without consulting top intelligence officials, he told Crawford he intends to consult with them.

Asked about criticism he has faced from Democrats and former government officials for saying the Trump campaign was "spied on" by federal investigators, Barr rejected the idea that "spying" is a "dirty word."

"I think there is nothing wrong with spying," he said. "The question is always whether it is authorized by law and properly predicated, and if it is, then it is an important tool the United States has to protect the country." 

During the interview Thursday, Barr also said special counsel Robert Mueller could have reached a decision on whether the president committed obstruction of justice, regardless of long-standing Justice Department policy that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president.