- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2018

Former intel guy James Clapper told Joy Behar, co-host of “The View,” the FBI was not spying on then-candidate Donald Trump, but rather only Russians, and that yada yada, there’s nothing to see here folks, go home.

But let’s hold up the horses, just a bit.

After all, in dictionary-speak, a spy’s a spy’s a spy, and spying’s, spying, no matter how it’s justified, no matter how it’s hooked.

This is the conversational snippet that’s got everybody talking.

First, Behar: “But the FBI started to look into Trump’s ties to Russia in the summer of 2016. Trump tweeted that this spring — this spying, rather, this spying that he claims is spying, other people say it’s a whistleblower or informant. He says it’s spying, it’s bigger than Watergate. So I ask you, was the FBI spying on Trump’s campaign?”

Now for Clapper’s reply.

“No, they were not,” he 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 or influence which is what they do.”

The right and left, predictably, perhaps, interpret Clapper’s statement quite differently.

President Donald Trump, for instance, came out swinging, saying the evidence is clear, his campaign was spied upon by the FBI and that this surveillance is bigger than Watergate — a comparison he’s hardly alone in making.

Liberals, meanwhile, have been busily arguing otherwise, labeling Trump a nutcase, a conspiracy theorizing, aluminum foil hat-wearing nut who is skewing remarks made by Clapper to tell political tall tales.

But isn’t this a bit like going down the rabbit hole dug by Bill Clinton when he wagged his finger and told the public his guilt or innocence depended “on what your definition of ‘is’ is? 

The fact is, perception means much.

Clapper can argue all he wants about the definition of spying, and who was spying on whom and for what reasons. The left can insist all it wants that America’s intel is above suspicion, politically neutral. But the surveillance Clapper claimed was focused solely on Russia roped in an unbelievably high number of Trump-tied officials. Purely coincidental? Well, ‘lest we forget, there’s Lisa Page. Peter Strzok. John Brennan’s Twitter feed

It doesn’t help for fired FBI chief James Comey to take to Twitter to talk about his former agency’s use of “Confidential Human Sources” — the feds’ eyebrow-raising term for spy. Really, James Comey? Really?

Seriously, if perception is tantamount to reality, well then, word is, the intel world is highly politicized.

“[Former CIA chief John Brennan is] running scared because it’s starting to look like he may have been a co-conspirator in the biggest political scandal since, well, Watergate,” said Adriana Cohen, a columnist with the Boston Herald.

Then this, from Sean Hannity on Fox News: “[This] is the biggest abuse of power corruption scandal. It makes Watergate look like a parking ticket.”

And this, from investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, writing for the Hill: “8 Signs Pointing to a Counterintelligence Operation Deployed Against Trump’s Campaign.”

That’s a snapshot of headlines moving through the media world in recent hours — and granted, there are plenty out there saying just the opposite, that this whole ‘Spygate’ drama is pure bunk, aimed at protecting the president from too-close-for-comfort Robert Mueller queries.

But in the end, what comes of the facts almost doesn’t matter.

At this point, the larger-picture damage has been done.

Washington’s intelligence agencies, once regarded as above the fray of petty politics, have been brought low, deep into the gutter of partisan bickering. Nobody believes the agencies are all that any more. Nobody has faith the FBI, the Department of Justice, the special intel offices hunkered in the midst of D.C.’s halls of power, have the best interests of the U.S. citizen at heart — at least, not as priority number one.

The asterisk’s been affixed; the quotation marks on either side of the word ‘unbiased’ have been placed.

Spying, schmying. Team Trump, Russia, the special counsel and grand jury indictments, the FBI, FISA courts and the constitutional rights of John Q. Citizen — no matter how the investigation wraps, no matter how this newest “Watergate” breaks, Americans already know one thing and it’s one thing that goes, sadly, like this: Our intel is hardly to be 100 percent trusted.

• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at cchumley@washingtontimes.com or on Twitter, @ckchumley.

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