President Trump tweeted about spying on his campaign for president:
“Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI ‘SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.’ Andrew McCarthy says, ‘There’s probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.’ If so, this is bigger than Watergate!”
Note that the president cites Andrew McCarthy and cautions, “If so....”
Characteristically, media reactions ignored those niceties:
TRUMP TWEETS ABOUT A “SPY” IN THE CAMPAIGN (CBS)
Trump: Justice Dept. put a 'spy' in campaign to 'frame' him (NBC)
Trump unleashes new political earthquake with FBI spy charge (CNN)
Trump promotes claim of a "spy" in the campaign, that DOJ is "out to frame" him (CBS)
Trump fans flames about alleged 'spy' within campaign while top lawyer tamps them down (ABC)
CNN treated this as another case of the president trumpeting fake news: “What Donald Trump doesn't know about how informants work is a lot,” read a headline. Trump’s opponents rushed to the airwaves to argue that the FBI had an informant, not a spy, on his campaign.
Josh Campbell, former FBI special agent and CNN contributor, was one who insisted that the FBI had an informant, not a spy:
The President casting a human intelligence source as a "spy" is pure politics. Although informants and spies both technically gather information covertly, the word "informant" is generally reserved for someone righteously operating on behalf of law enforcement, whereas "spy" conjures up a more sinister mental picture of someone skulking in the shadows with questionable intentions.
An informant operates “righteously,” while spies have “questionable intentions”? If that were so, then whether the FBI had a spy or an informant depends entirely on whether you’re for Trump or against him.
As Andrew McCarthy points out, however,
Whether we come to see an informant as an indispensable “confidential human source” or as a treacherous “spy” has little to do with his subjective virtue or malevolence.
There is a real difference between being an informant and being a spy, one that has nothing to do with having good intentions, acting virtuously, or being on the right side.
In the broadest sense, an informant is one who informs, who transmits information. A spy is one who spies, who secretly transmits secret, confidential, or hidden information. Spies are informants of a special kind: the information they transmit is secret, confidential, or hidden, and they hide the fact that they’re transmitting it. To know whether the FBI had a spy, we need to ask,
Did Stefan Halper or anyone else secretly transmit secret, confidential, or hidden information to the FBI?
Answer: Yes. Obtaining hidden information is precisely why Halper met with Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and others, rather than researching them using publicly available sources. He didn’t disclose that he was transmitting that information to the FBI. The Washington Post admits as much, describing him as a “secret informant.” But a “secret informant” is a spy.
These terms also have narrower senses. An informant, in the stricter sense, informs against someone, and is paid for doing it. A spy, in the stricter sense, is employed to transmit secretly, against an enemy, information that is secret, confidential, or hidden. What distinguishes the narrower from the broader sense of both terms, in other words, is whether the person spying or informing is paid for doing it, and whether the information is directed against someone.
To ask whether the FBI had either a spy or an informant in the narrower sense, then, we have to ask,
Did the FBI pay Stefan Halper for his information?
Was Halper’s information directed against someone?
Answer: Yes. The US Department of Defense paid Halper $282,295 on September 27, 2016, and another $129,280 on July 26, 2017, for “special studies/analysis—foreign national security policy.” And whether the information was directed against the Trump campaign or the Russians, it was plainly directed against someone.
So, in the narrower sense, Halper was a spy as well as an informant.
Game over. The President, once again, is right. His critics are the ones peddling fake news.
There is one thing that might be said in their defense. Spies, most paradigmatically, are on the payroll. Informants aren’t. Halper is a partner in the London-based consulting firm Cambridge Security Initiative, along with the former head of MI6. He was a consultant to the U.S. government, not an employee. Halper, in other words, was a somewhat unusual spy, a free-lancer rather than a regular employee.
But the government’s contracting with him to spy on the Trump campaign was no less scandalous for that. An unusual spy is still a spy.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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