Americans might be a bit puzzled by all the fuss over a talking points memo, written by Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, that purports to detail a scandalous abuse of power by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, specifically in its surveillance of associates of President Donald Trump. Much of it is reportedly focused on how the FBI convinced a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to authorize a wiretap, allegedly with materials taken from a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, who formerly headed the Russia desk for MI6, for a company called Fusion GPS. The 35-page report originated as opposition research on the Trump campaign.
Got it? Despite warnings from the president’s own Justice Department that release of the Nunes memo would be “extremely reckless,” Republicans on the committee voted Monday to do it anyway. President Trump now has five days to decide whether to allow it, but given his desire to derail the Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling of the last election (and his affection for Fox News’ Sean Hannity, his BFF wingman in the conservative media, who has made #releasethememo a “bigger than Watergate” moment), the odds are good that Mr. Nunes’ handiwork is destined for public consumption.
Under most circumstances, we’re all for public disclosure of just about anything. But there are more than a few reasons to be skeptical that this is anything more than yet another attempt to discredit the nation’s leading law enforcement agency and provide cover for President Trump and his associates, some of whom — including Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael Flynn — are already in deep legal trouble.
First and foremost, if House Republicans are so concerned about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court being bamboozled by the FBI, why have they demonstrated so little interest in reining in FISA? Earlier this month, Congress happily passed a six-year extension of FISA’s Section 702, which not only authorizes the government to tap foreign communications but to hear a lot from Americans on the other end of the line — much of it without a court warrant of any kind. So if the FBI is so out of control, where was the concern just two weeks ago? And do you really have to misrepresent anything to get a FISA warrant anyway? In 2016, there were 1,559 such warrants issued, and more than 300 were on U.S. citizens. And that’s just one year.
Then there’s the matter of just how this four-page memo was developed. Mr. Nunes, readers may recall, is — by any reasonable appraisal — completely in the bag for the president. He had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation (although apparently only temporarily) last April for violating ethics rules when he took classified surveillance reports to the White House before letting the full committee even know about them. (Remember the congressman who rushed to the White House to brief President Trump on information he had gotten the day before … from the White House? Yeah, this is that guy.) When it comes to national security, it’s customary to be bipartisan. Mr. Nunes, who served on the Trump transition team, simply doesn’t operate that way, and it’s why the Senate Intelligence Committee headed by Sen. Richard Burr has been far more credible. Incidentally, Senator Burr’s committee staff wasn’t provided access to the Nunes memo. Smell something fishy yet?
Is the memo as “profoundly misleading” as Democrats say it is? We don’t know. And, indeed, we have no way of knowing that answer even if it’s made public since we don’t have access to all the classified documents that committee members presumably do. If, as critics claim, the author cherry-picked the information and left out all the context, then there’s simply no way for average Americans to tell. The memo can’t be refuted under such circumstances, which is what makes this maneuver so diabolical. If Mr. Nunes is really interested in reviewing how the FISA warrant was obtained, it would have made far more sense to release a copy of the FISA warrant application. But then it would be a lot tougher to stoke public fears of a massive FBI-Justice Department conspiracy, perhaps even involving Rod Rosenstein, who developed a no-nonsense nonpartisan reputation during his years as the Republican-appointed top federal prosecutor in Baltimore. And, by the way, what if the Steele dossier was among the documents the FBI reviewed as part of its investigation or even presented to a FISA judge? Shouldn’t investigators be looking into its allegations even if they were produced as part of a political campaign? Just because something is uncovered during opposition research doesn’t make it untrue.
This has all the markings of a classic tempest-in-a-teapot except that the consequences of it could be dire. House Republicans seem bent on crippling the Justice Department and FBI and running career law enforcement officers out of town while perpetuating tin foil-hat conspiracy theories about a deep state on the basis of nothing more substantial than a political memo and some interoffice pillow talk email between a couple of FBI agents. If President Trump is serious about putting the Russia investigation behind him, he’d be far better off holding the memo. If the FBI investigation truly lacks credibility, it can all come out when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III finishes his work.