For more than a year now, Democrats have been driven into hysterics on a weekly basis by highly selective, often partisan leaks fed to them in 900-word increments by the political media. Whether these sensationalist stories were debunked or not, no Democrat demanded that every scrap of information related to their 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, now preemptively dismissing the four-page summary memo alleging 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.
“FISA warrants typically are big thick documents, 50-60 pages,” John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director, recently wrote. “If the Nunes memo about one is just 4 pages, you can bet it’s a carefully picked bowl of cherries. Made all the more dishonest by holding back the minority rebuttal memo. A real debate needs both. Someone fears that.” Indeed.
McLaughlin is repeating a well-worn talking point. 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 year-long 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 idea, however, that intelligence agencies should be immune from oversight is a dangerous one. Even if texts between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page 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 impeachment and removal of the president. Logically speaking, you can’t argue that this is another Watergate, then also 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’s assertions over the past year have been more trustworthy than those of his Democrat 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 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, then lying about it, would feel comfortable dropping standards to snoop on its political adversaries.
Even if we find out that a FISA warrant, those typically “big thick documents 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 Russian “meddling” are acting as if democracy is 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 towards being made public. It should be. Both memos are a good place to start investigating wrongdoing, or to dismiss those charges. There is absolutely no legal or ethical reason, however, for us not to see them.