Column: With caution, take Nunes memo seriously
For more than a year now, half of America has been driven into hysterics on a weekly basis by highly selective, often partisan leaks fed to it in 900-word increments by Democrats using the political media. Whether these sensationalist stories were debunked or not, no one demanded that every scrap of classified information related to those leaks be declassified immediately to ensure that the nation see the appropriate context. It’s a process, we were told.
You’ll notice that many of the same process-oriented folks, who are now pre-emptively dismissing a four-page memo that alleges surveillance abuses by the Justice Department and FBI as a bunch of conspiracy theories, have a different set of standards for Rep. Devin Nunes and Republicans.
As far as I can tell, none of the critics of the memo have argued that the contentions are untrue, only that the contentions are out of context, misleading, cherry-picked and so on. But since the memo — which is culled from a yearlong investigation — isn’t an indictment or the entire story, there’s no real reason we shouldn’t use it to help ascertain whether there were potential abuses in intelligence gathering in the Obama administration. Once we have an outline, we can take the issues on one at a time, or disregard all of them. The FBI will be able to answer the charges and defend itself by releasing counterinformation.
However, the idea that intelligence agencies should be immune from oversight is a dangerous one. Even if texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page regarding the special counsel investigation were innocent venting that did absolutely nothing to corrode the rigid professionalism of the duo, we’re talking about an investigation that Democrats hope will lead to the impeachment and removal of the president. Logically speaking, you can’t argue that this is another Watergate and then argue that texts pertaining to the investigation of this new Watergate don’t deserve scrutiny.
Are Republicans overplaying the potential impact of the memo in the same way Democrats have overplayed the “collusion” card? It’s entirely possible. Nunes might be a hopeless Trump partisan, and the thousands of Trump supporters retweeting #ReleaseTheMemo might have irrational ideas about its importance. None of this makes the memo wholly irrelevant or a distraction.
I hate to break the news to you, but Nunes’ assertions over the past year have been just as trustworthy as any of those by his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff, who not only has a habit of offering the public out-of-context and misleading information but once claimed to have seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians without offering any of the underlying evidence to back his contention. Imagine that.
For that matter, even if President Donald Trump is guilty of colluding with the Russians, or whatever crime special counsel Robert Mueller has settled on pursuing, it doesn’t mean the Obama administration was above abusing its power to spy on opponents. It’s highly plausible, in fact, that an administration that had little compunction about spying on journalists and others and then lying about it would feel comfortable dropping standards to snoop on its political adversaries.
Even if we find out that the FISA warrant, that typically “big, thick” document with “50-60 pages,” wasn’t entirely based on the work of fabulist former British spy Christopher Steele, it could still be a scandal. It’s completely reasonable to ask how much of the administration’s investigation into collusion was precipitated by disinformation from Steele -- who was hired by FusionGPS, which in turn was hired by Democrats. Such an arrangement featuring the name of Donald Trump — or any Republican, for that matter — would create a media frenzy that would swallow all of us whole.
In another era — which is to say, a little more than a year ago — intel abuse was a hot topic among many Democrats. Now it’s a conspiracy theory to wonder whether intelligence agencies might have been less than scrupulous about attaining affidavits to spy on American citizens when it was politically expedient.
Now, Trump critics who demand 24/7 devotion to the idea of Russian “meddling” are acting as if democracy were on life support because a congressional committee is exercising its rightful role in the oversight of intelligence gathering. They’re not doing it through leaks, as the minority has been doing for a year now, but rather through a legal process of declassification.
Democrats’ “rebuttal memo” is also working its way toward being made public. It should be. Both memos are a good place to start investigating wrongdoing, or dismissing those charges. There is absolutely no legal or ethical reason, however, for us not to see them.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist