We’re reaching a dangerous point of partisan polarization in our nation. Millions of Americans are now firmly convinced that the entire Russia investigation is a scam cooked up by “deep state” bureaucrats who are seeking to topple a duly elected president. This is the so-called soft coup so often discussed on talk radio and social media.
Conversely, there are millions of Americans who are convinced that a sitting president stole an election by conspiring with a hostile foreign power and then obstructed justice to prevent the truth from emerging. This is the core of the collusion narrative that inspires hundred-tweet threads on progressive Twitter.
Moreover, partisans are convinced of these opinions although we have only enough evidence to raise suspicions but far from enough to draw meaningful conclusions. More precisely, I’d argue that it’s the very absence of evidence that’s helping fuel the deepest, darkest theories. When gaps exist — when text messages go missing — then imaginations run wild.
Over the last several days, online debate has centered around a memorandum drafted by Devin Nunes and House Intelligence Committee staff that allegedly details surveillance abuses in the American intelligence community. When the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo trended on Twitter, Democrats suspected possible help from Russian bots, but preliminary reports on Twitter’s internal analysis, according to the Daily Beast, suggest that the “groundswell . . . appears thus far to be organically American — not Russian propaganda.” More than 200 members of Congress, nearly all of them Republican, have seen the four-page memo, but Republicans are reportedly refusing to share it with the Department of Justice.
Enough. This debate is getting absurd. Release the memo, but don’t stop there. Release the memo, the underlying evidence that allegedly supports its conclusions, the FISA-court applications that launched the Russia investigation, any additional relevant FISA-court applications, any relevant FISA-court opinions and orders, and any other class or category of classified information that allegedly substantiated DOJ concerns about Trump-campaign collusion with Russia.
Releasing the memo alone isn’t enough. Reportedly, it mainly consists of so-called top-line conclusions. In layman’s terms, these are conclusions the authors reached based on evidence the authors don’t include in the memo itself. In other words, it’s reportedly a summary document. In my military life, I’ve seen memos like this, and they can have their uses, but they require not just a high degree of trust in the authors but also a level of accountability — an ability to check the authors’ work.
Absent trust in the authors or access to the underlying evidence, a conclusory memo can be worse than useless. If released, the fact that it was formerly “classified” gives it an air of authenticity and mystery that its contents might not deserve. There are copious amounts of mistaken or exaggerated classified information and conclusions circulating within the federal government, and a “classified” stamp is not a certification of accuracy.
Yes, I know there are valid national-security objections to disclosure on the scale I outlined, but consider three factors in response.
First, our government is plagued with an over-classification problem. There’s caution, there’s erring on the side of caution, and then there’s our government’s practice of sweeping up enormous categories of information, popping the classified label on it, and squirreling it away thoughtlessly and heedlessly. When I was in Iraq, I was consistently astounded at the sheer breadth of information on our classified network (called SIPRNet). Newspaper articles would be forwarded under classified cover memos. I’ve seen “classified” birthday greetings. Of course, I’m not arguing that the classifications at issue here are similarly frivolous. But I do know that — as a general matter — our national security won’t suffer because of broader disclosure, and we shouldn’t simply accept that all the still-hidden information relevant to the Russia investigation is classified for good reason.
Second, declassification isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The classification system itself recognizes degrees of sensitivity (secret, top secret, etc.), and the most sensitive information can still be withheld. Prudent redactions are possible. The emphasis, however, should be on “prudent.” Just as over-classification is a chronic government problem, so is over-redaction. Anyone who is familiar with responses to FOIA requests has seen pages of documents with sometimes only single sentences exposed, the rest covered in bands of black ink.
The nation is in the grip of a crisis of distrust and polarization that itself presents a national-security problem.
Third, the national-security interests are changing. The classification system fundamentally exists to protect the nation, not its civil servants or its politicians. And right now, the nation is in the grip of a crisis of distrust and polarization that itself presents a national-security problem. Aside from a nuclear exchange with Russia, there is no external enemy that can harm America as much as America can harm itself.
And make no mistake, America is harming itself. The political conflict over the legitimacy of the elected government — and over the integrity of federal law enforcement — is escalating dangerously. It’s time to seriously ask whether the cost, for example, of potentially compromised “sources and methods” is worth sowing division in a national debate that traffics more in ferocity than in facts.
It’s time to put up or shut up. The president has the power. He can consult with his own appointees, redact information that actually puts lives at risk, and release into the public domain information that can intelligently inform a host of public debates. Republican and Democratic politicians alike no longer have the standing to ask us to just trust their assessments and rely on their characterizations. Let’s see the memo. Let’s see the evidence. In the interests of national unity and public accountability, it’s time to be transparent.