What Is 'Spying'? William Barr Claims Word Doesn't Have Any 'Negative Connotation' but Dictionaries Say Otherwise

william barr spying dictionary
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on "The Justice Department's Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election" on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Sparring between Attorney General William Barr and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse over the meaning and connotation of the word spying prompted people on Twitter to question the exact definition of the word.

Barr's Wednesday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on special counsel Robert Mueller's report. He fielded a series of questions from both Democratic and Republican senators and during Whitehouse's field of questions, Barr's description of the authorized Department of Justice activities was referenced.

Whitehouse said Barr used the word spying during his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in reference to the authorized Department of Justice activities. Then, Whitehouse asked if, in an official capacity, he used the word previously to describe authorized department investigative activities.

"I'm not going to abjure the use of the word spying.… My first job was in the CIA, and I don't think the word spying has any pejorative connotation at all," Barr responded. "I think spying is a good English word that in fact doesn't have synonyms because it is the broadest word incorporating all forms of covert intelligence collections."

Barr noted that the question about the connotation of the word was whether the actions were authorized.

Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, posted on Twitter that given Barr's background in the CIA, he knows when it does and does not have a connotation.

"He's managing to shame himself and mock both the CIA and DOJ at the same time."

Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist and political analyst for CNN, wrote that Barr was either intentionally or unintentionally "avoiding the obvious that Trump used the word 'spying' in the most pejorative way."

"That's why it was shocking he used it," Rogin wrote in the Tweet.

Jason Seher, a producer for CNN's Inside Politics, posted a link to a May 2018 tweet by President Donald Trump and said it was a "reminder of how the president views the word 'spying.'"

"Clapper has now admitted that there was Spying in my campaign. Large dollars were paid to the Spy, far beyond normal," Trump posted on Twitter. "Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. SPYGATE - a terrible thing!"

As defined by Merriam-Webster, the word, "spy," as a verb, has three definitions, listed as:

  • To watch secretly usually for hostile purposes
  • To catch sight of
  • To search or look for intensively—usually used with out

Merriam-Webster listed several synonyms for the verb form of the word spying including, behold, catch, descry, discern, distinguish, eye, notice, observe, regard, remark, spot, view and witness.

As a verb, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary had two definitions for the word:

  • to observe secretively or furtively with hostile intent
  • to act as a spy; engage in espionage.
  • to catch sight of suddenly; espy; descry:
  • to discover or find out by observation or scrutiny
  • Barr also said the word "spying" was commonly used by the press until the "faux outrage" a few weeks ago.

Barr also said the word spying was commonly used by the press until the "faux outrage" a few weeks ago.