The Nunes memo has been released and America’s national security has not, as far as we can tell, been irreparably harmed.
The campaign waged against the memo as a grave threat to America’s intelligence operations appears completely absurd in light of its contents. Part of the bureaucratic objection at the FBI to releasing the memo — and to giving the House Intelligence Committee the material it’s based on — was clearly that it contained information embarrassing to the FBI.
The memo was always going to labor under unrealistic expectations. It couldn’t possibly live up to its advance billing from Sean Hannity and Co. that it was Watergate and the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping all wrapped into one. But it adds to our understanding of the beginnings of the Russia investigation and raises questions about its provenance.
According to the memo, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told the committee that there would have been no Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application to surveil former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page absent the information in the so-called Steele dossier. That’s the lurid oppo document produced by former British spy Christopher Steele, who worked for the research firm Fusion GPS that the Democrats paid to dig up dirt on Trump.
The memo says that the partisan source of the document wasn’t made clear to the FISA court; that the dossier was largely unverified; and that Steele made his anti-Trump agenda clear to the FBI. This suggests sloppiness on the part of the FBI, and perhaps something worse. Certainly, if this were a Democratic president who was the subject of an investigation that began, in part, on the basis of partisan information, Democrats would be running around with their hair on fire (and the press wouldn’t be outraged by congressional oversight to get to the bottom of the matter).
One argument made against the memo is that it is “partisan.” Well, yes, and so is everything that Adam Schiff does. Yet Schiff doesn’t appear to have any trouble getting reporters on the phone. A high-stakes Washington investigation such as this will always become politicized, with the two parties clashing over what’s most important and how to interpret facts.
Another argument is that the FISA surveillance was of Carter Page, the eccentric low-level Trump-campaign foreign-policy aide who has obnoxiously pro-Kremlin views. So, why should anyone be concerned? He was already, it is said, on the FBI radar screen. Page isn’t our cup of tea, but when he first came to the attention of the FBI years ago, he cooperated with the bureau in an investigation of a Russian spy. The widespread presumption that he is dirty hasn’t been proven.
Yet another is that the memo acknowledges that the Russian investigation didn’t begin with Page, but with George Papadopoulos months earlier and with no connection to the dossier. But there is no indication that this was anything other than a ministerial act, i.e., a formal opening of a case with no action taken to follow up. So the Carter Page surveillance may well have been the main event.
Finally, the FBI says that the memo has material omissions, and Democrats contest key allegations in it. Resolving this shouldn’t be difficult: The counter-memo produced by the Democrats should be released, as well as underlying material including the transcript of the interview with Andrew McCabe, which has become the subject of a he-said/he-said between committee Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the surveillance of Page bore some fruit; if so, we should hear about it. The more information the public can get about all of this, the better.
There is speculation that President Trump might, in response to the memo, fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw one of the renewals of FISA warrants on Carter Page. Trump made one of his patented ambiguously threatening remarks about this possibility on Friday. If he were to move against Rosenstein, it might cause a semi-collapse of his Justice Department, give further fodder to Robert Mueller, and undo the political headway Republicans have made in recent weeks. Trump should sit tight and — if the investigation is as unfounded as he says — await his eventual vindication.
The more information the public can get about all of this, the better.
The Nunes memo has broken the seal on information related to the start of the Russian investigation; the republic will survive, and in fact, benefit from an airing of the circumstances of this episode.