National Security & Defense

Nunes Memo: National-Security High Alert! Not.

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Over-classification lets bureaucrats bury scandals and avoid accountability.

Leaving aside all of the hyperbole and smokescreens surrounding the Nunes memo, one indisputable fact stands out. Many leading Democrats asserted confidently that the memo would expose national-security information and damage the ability of our intelligence agencies to function. The memo released Friday — which did not have a single word redacted — clearly contained lots of information on intelligence-agency abuses. Here’s what it did not contain: secrets vital to national security.

Yet, just the day before the memo was released, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) sent a letter to House speaker Paul Ryan, (R., Wis.) warning of the damage that “dangerous partisanship” could do to the country if the memo were released. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) called the memo “dangerous” and “illegitimate” and declared that the House Intelligence Committee had ignored warnings from the FBI and Justice Department and was behaving with a “dangerous irresponsibility and disregard for our national security.” The FBI issued a statement warning of “grave” consequences if the memo was released. So far, none of these players has since apologized for their misleading statements or explained why they made them.

All of this opens a broader issue: To what extent do our leaders seek to bury abuses, prevent accountability, and sweep embarrassing information under the rug by exaggerating national-security threats? To a great extent, I fear, and the ploy has become a “last refuge among scoundrels” — even more so than hyper-patriotism has become.

Bureaucrats love the over-classification of documents because it allows them to bury their mistakes and scandals. A former NSA official tells me that “no bureaucrat ever gets demoted, and few are ever reprimanded” for classifying something that doesn’t impinge on national security. But many are the bureaucrats who avoid accountability and consequences by warning that someone looking over their shoulder is jeopardizing the country’s security.

Twenty years ago, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan chaired the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. The commission’s findings analyzed the parallel growth of secrecy and bureaucracy in the U.S. In an interview I conducted with him at the time, Moynihan noted that much of the classified info they reviewed had nothing to do with national security; instead, it was about protecting turf and avoiding exposure or embarrassment. As Moynihan wrote:

Americans are familiar with the tendency to overregulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of the regulation. Thus, secrecy is the ultimate mode of regulation; the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated!

George Washington University Law professor Jonathan Turley, who has criticized both President Obama and Trump for a lack of transparency, was also critical of Democrats and establishment Republicans who opposed release of the Nunes memo on national-security grounds.

The release of the Nunes memo is a watershed moment, Turley argued recently at The Hill, because we can compare in real time the warnings of the “security state” about the memo with the actual memo itself. One side was clearly bluffing — or worse. As Turley writes:

The FBI opposition to declassification of this memo should be a focus of both Congress and the public. The memo is clearly designed to avoid revealing classified information. For civil libertarians, this is a rare opportunity to show how classified rules are misused for strategic purposes by these agencies. The same concern can be directed toward members who read this memo and represented to the public that the release would clearly damage national security.

We should take the more hysterical claims of those who may have something to hide with a pillar of salt.

The Nunes-memo episode should teach us that in future we should take the more hysterical claims of those who may have something to hide with a pillar of salt. Of course, we should scrupulously guard against unwarranted release of sensitive information. But we should also remember the words of Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis who said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

So let’s have all the truth about the 2016 election and the various political claims and counterclaims: future memos from Nunes’s committee, the Democratic response, the Russia-collusion probe of Robert Mueller, and the Justice Department’s inspector-general report on Hillary Clinton’s emails. In a democracy, we should trust the public to make the ultimate judgment on those matters — not shadowy bureaucrats or political posers.


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