Durham was previously appointed to investigate any criminal wrongdoing in the way top leaders at the Justice Department and FBI handled the investigation, but Barr's decision to elevate him as a special counsel, done two weeks prior to the election, gives Durham an extra layer of protection -- he can't easily be fired in a Justice Department under a new administration.
In an appointment order released Tuesday, Barr said that Durham is authorized "to investigate whether any federal official, employee or any person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence or law enforcement activities."
A Department of Justice inspector general report released last year determined the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was launched with an authorized purpose, despite significant allegations of wrongdoing in how agents handled the counterintelligence probe of President Donald Trump's first presidential campaign.
"In advance of the presidential election, I decided to appoint Mr. Durham as a Special Counsel to provide him and his team with the assurance that they could complete their work, without regard to the outcome of the election," Barr wrote, adding that he appointed Durham with "the powers and authority of a Special Counsel."
Barr said that due to the pandemic and other information uncovered, Durham could not complete his investigation by summer of 2020, as the attorney general had hoped.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Barr noted that the scope of Durham's investigation has "narrowed considerably" and is focused almost solely on the actions of FBI agents involved in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
The most recent special counsel, Robert Mueller, was tasked with investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election and his investigation extended on the work of the Crossfire Hurricane investigative team.
"I decided the best thing to do would be to appoint them under the same regulation that covered Bob Muller, to provide Durham and his team some assurance that they'd be able to complete their work regardless of the outcome of the election," Barr told the Associated Press on Tuesday.