A non-partisan reaction to the release of the Nunes memo

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, February 2, 2018)

There is one clear conclusion from the House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ memo which implicates the FBI in abusing FISA-based surveillance powers: Everyone involved in this hot mess looks bad and no institution will be spared.

The Nunes memo (which you can acccess here: FISA-Memo) is narrowly targeted at the FISA application to conduct surveillance on Carter Page. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, the national news media’s over reaction to the memo says more than the memo itself.

Former FBI director posted this puzzling message right before the release of the Devin Nunes memo:

Nice words, but drenched in irony. If there is any analogy to Joe McCarthy, it is the willingness of the mainstream media to provide a national platform to people suggesting anyone who defends the Trump administration may be a Russian operative, including Nunes and House Leader Paul Ryan. Here is an example of MSNBC doing just that: Video. Enough said.

That is textbook McCarthyism.

Thankfully, House Leader Ryan refuses to fall into the partisan trap surrounding the Nunes memo. “This memo is not an indictment of the FBI or Department of Justice,” says Ryan.

Ryan is correct.

In fact, now that the Nunes memo has been released, it begs the questions, what were the Democrats so afraid of and what were the Republicans so excited about?

Before going through the memo’s basic conclusions, it is important to emphasize that the memo is simply hearsay testimony about the FISA application to surveil Page. It is not even clear if Nunes himself saw the original FISA application.

Without the actual FISA application, it is impossible to verify if Nunes’ memo accurately describes what the FBI said to the FISA court. When the Democrats release their memo, the same problem will exist.

The bottom line is that the American people need to see the actual 50-page FISA application (with the appropriate redactions to protect sources and methods). Short of that, all we have is partisan posturing and noise.

Lastly, the FISA application at the center of the Nunes memo was for Carter Page –which makes it less interesting than a FISA application for someone else connected to the Trump presidential campaign.

The FBI already knew in 2013 that the Russians were trying to recruit Page as an agent. Getting a FISA court to authorize (or re-authorize) surveillance of Page did not require the Christopher Steele/Fusion GPS dossier. All the FBI needed to show the FISA court was (1) the original evidence of Russia’s attempted recruitment of Page and that (2) Page was connected at some level to a presidential campaign and still in contact with Russians (Note: The Steele dossier may have been cited in the FISA application for that reason). End of application. Period.

So, given these realities surrounding the Nunes memo, it is dangerous to ascribe too much relevance to its contents. Instead of proving the FBI had politicized a FISA application process, the Nunes memo begs more questions.

Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the Nunes memo out-of-hand as many are trying to do. Underlying Nunes’ motive to write it  is a serious question: Did the FBI use political opposition research to justify surveillance of Trump campaign operatives and did they, by commission or omission, misrepresent the nature of this political opposition research to the FISA judge?

Why does this matter? Because in our democracy we cannot allow political parties or candidates to leverage the enormous resources of our federal government, in this case the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community, for an electoral advantage. It is the same logic that makes it illegal for U.S. campaigns to receive services of financial value from foreign actors.

The credibility of U.S. elections is at stake.

Imagine a world where a billion-dollar presidential campaign can use its enormous resources to fund vast and sophisticated opposition research on its opponents and then magnify the impact of this research by using it to gain the services of the FBI (or any other federal agency) to further discredit a political opponent. That is what goes on in dictatorships.

This is why the Nunes memo is so important and why the Democrats are so eager to suggest Nunes has “cherry-picked” the facts.

He may have ‘cherry-picked’ facts (…what summary report doesn’t?…). However, not helping the Democrats’ argument are these two facts: (1) Trump campaign operatives were surveilled (at significant expense to the U.S. government) and/or unmasked by the Obama administration and, (2) as yet, there is no direct evidence that any Trump campaign operatives were engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to “hack” the U.S. presidential election or pursued a quid-pro-quo arrangement with the Russians once Trump entered office.

Up to now, the public evidence of a possible conspiracy — Papadopoulos bragging to an Aussie foreign affairs official that the Russians have “Hillary’s emails,” Roger Stone predicting the release of the Podesta emails before they had been made public by Wikileaks, Donald Trump Jr. meeting a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower to discuss ‘dirt on Hillary,’ General Flynn and other Trump operatives meeting with Russia’s U.S. ambassador at various points during and after the election to discuss sanctions — is circumstantial. In other words, these facts are likely explained by more benign and legal intentions.

Robert Mueller’s team may have direct evidence, but the press hasn’t reported it and the American public hasn’t seen it.

With these major caveats in mind, here is what the Nunes memo claims:

  • According to a Republican summary of congressional testimony from Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, the Christopher Steele dossier, which McCabe admitted was only minimally corroborated, was central to the FBI’s FISA application to a federal FISA judge to conduct surveillance on Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
  • To the FISA court, the Steele dossier was partially verified through a Yahoo News article sourced anonymously by Steele and the wife of FBI deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr; who , in turn, worked for Fusion GPS, the source of the Steele dossier itself. In other words, the source of the Steele dossier was used by the press to lend credibility to the Steele dossier. [You don’t have to be a journalist to know that is very bad journalism. We are seeing a lot of that these days]
  • The FBI did not explicitly reveal in their surveillance application to the FISA judge the funding source of the Steele dossier (the Hillary Clinton campaign). It is possible (even likely) the FISA judge asked about the dossier’s funding, but we don’t know that.
  • Steele’s numerous encounters with the media and his known detestation of Donald Trump violated the cardinal rule of source handling.
  • There is no indication of a conspiracy between Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Carter Page.
  • Despite his dossier being unverified and some aspects discredited, Steele maintained a relationship with associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr, whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that generated much of the anti-Trump intelligence used to justify the FISA surveillance application.
  • The “unmasking” of U.S. persons as part of authorized U.S. intelligence collection activities was liberally (if not illegally) used by the Barack Obama administration, possibly for political reasons.
  • Nothing in the Nunes memo endangers U.S. national security.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Nunes memo aside, here are the institutions coming out of this kerfuffle looking bad. We must start with…

The News Media

Nobody looks worse in the Nunes memo controversy than the mainstream news media who uncritically parroted the FBI, Department of Justice and U.S. Intelligence Community’s warnings that national security is compromised by the release of the Nunes memo. In retrospect, their security concerns were bullshit.

So what are the congressional Democrats really concerned about?

From the start of the Trump administration, the mainstream media has had no compunction against publishing leaked classified information suggesting collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Yet, with the release of the Nunes memo, suddenly the mainstream media is outraged at the release of classified information.

That is textbook hypocrisy.

The mainstream media can no longer can be viewed as independent arbiters of information coming from the U.S. government. They are nothing less than the extension of the U.S. government’s public relations operations.

As a news-consuming public, we need to stop calling stories “news” when their core information derives entirely from anonymous government sources. Contrary to the popular myth, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t report Watergate that way…see for yourself here.

For once, President Trump’s words got it exactly right: “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves,” said President Trump at the release of the Nunes memo.

No group should be more ashamed than the journalists connected to The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSBNC, and other news organizations.

For all of the propaganda directed against the Fox News Network, no news organization has covered all sides of the Nunes memo more than Fox News.

Why did Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein extend the surveillance of Carter Page under the FISA court approval? According to Fox News, the Nunes memo offers no explanation, but that is a question an objective news media should be pursuing.

But you won’t hear that question from CNN or MSNBC.

Instead, we get tired tropes about the Trump administration’s collusion with the Putin regime, despite no concrete evidence of such. Only speculation, innuendo and hearsay are offered by CNN and MSNBC as proof of this collusion.

Sure, Russian spymasters met recently with our nation’s spymasters. Typically, that has been done in the past in places like Vienna, Austria, not McLean, Virginia. However, in my brief time in the American intelligence community, I saw Russian intelligence officials on more than one occasion navigating the hallways of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Apparently, this type of interaction with foreign intelligence officials is only acceptable under New York Times-approved administrations.

In the real world, the Russians are a critical ally with the United States in the war on terrorism. Granted, the Russians are not easy to work with and, at some level, can never be uncritically trusted. But it was U.S. coordination with Russian interests in Syria that enabled the success of U.S. military-led actions against ISIS. We can convince ourselves that our success against ISIS in Syria and Iraq was independent of Russian interests, but we would be deceiving ourselves.

American journalists, however, have conveniently ignored our country’s substantial military achievements in the Levant since the Trump administration.

American journalism, for lack of a better term, has become hopelessly partisan.

Nothing personifies the death of American journalism better than The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson’s essay, “Trump and His Minions Can’t Out-Leak the FBI.”

Even after regurgitating the many historical examples of how the FBI has abused its powers to conduct surveillance on American citizens, Robinson justifies the FBI’s extra-legal methods in pursuing evidence of the Trump administration colluding with the Russians.

Why does Robinson come to this conclusion? The only explanation can be that he is a partisan who will never accept that Donald Trump is his president. Unfortunately, the FBI bureaucracy he defends today is the same FBI bureaucracy that could someday turn its attention to leftist commentators like Eugene Robinson, who has over his career traveled overseas and met with more than a few critics of the American government. Sadly, Robinson does not address that possibility in his essay.

From what we know today, the Trump-Russia collusion story is nothing more than partisan politics. It is no more complicated than that.

Which brings us to the next group who does not come out of this Nunes memo controversy looking very good…

The Democrats

The Democrats, with their limitless enmity towards President Trump and a luxuriant belief in their own virtue, are now in the position of defending a federal law enforcement agency that has a long and well-documented history of occasionally abusing the privacy rights of Americans, sometimes for short-sighted, petty political reasons.

Suggestions by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Department of Justice, and U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) officials of “grave consequences” to the security of this country upon the public release of the Nunes memo says more about their belief in the primacy of government secrecy over transparency than their understanding of sources and methods.

The Nunes memo does not compromise national security, even slightly.

The United States has weathered many leaks of classified information, far more detailed and egregious than the contents of the Nunes memo. Truth be told, intelligence leaks often reveal the government’s abuse of power and are sometimes precursors to positive changes in public policy, such as the Church Committee (which coincidentally led the passing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978), the Privacy Act of 1974, the end of the Vietnam War, and more recently, the ending of ‘enhanced interrogation‘ methods (torture) employed by U.S. agents in response to the 9-11 attacks and the Iraq war.

Leaking classified information is a serious crime and can do grave damage to this country’s security. Two top-of-mind examples are the leaking of U.S. spy satellite system to the Soviets (as was done by Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee) and the identification of CIA assets in the Soviet Union (as was done by the FBI’s Robert Hanssen).

The Nunes Memo, in contrast, contains classified information, but of a more benign variety. Most of its classified content is indirect through referencing the higher-level intelligence used to support the memo’s conclusions. It is still classified content, but not the kind that can do “grave” damage to this country’s security.

The Democrats, frankly, are hyperventilating over the Nunes memo for purely political reasons and are using the Justice Department and the IC’s concerns about the memo for strictly partisan purposes. Plain and simple.

The Republicans

Republicans, in turn, are forced to defend a former presidential campaign and now an administration that recklessly populates its ranks with too many people that are poorly-vetted and ill-equipped for government service.

What else can explain George George Papadopoulos and Carter Page?

As part of its insurgency against the “swamp,” the Trump administration offers an ersatz notion of competence based not on knowledge and real-world experience but on loyalty and an often creepy degree of obsequiousness towards the boss. Administration press conferences now are more likely to give off a shock-jock vibe than a sense of earnest intent and edification.

When you look at former and current operatives within Trump’s orbit, many are inexperienced and have little background (or interest) in the laws governing public servants. That they would cross some ethical and legal lines in propriety should surprise no one.

Case in point, there is no reason George Papadopoulos should ever be near, let alone in, a senior foreign policy meeting for a major presidential campaign. His most substantive foreign policy experience prior to working on the Trump campaign was attending a Model United Nations conference for college students.

Had the Trump campaign just done a Google-level background check on Paul Manafort, they would have found a man with too many business connections to some very sketchy people. And I don’t want to hear “What about the Clintons?” from Trump apologists. If the Clintons are your benchmark for judging the integrity of public servants, that’s just sad.

And Carter Page? The shifty sleezeball meter goes off the scale with this guy. He does have a genuine business background with Russian energy interests, but he also drew the attention of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit when a known Russian spy tried to recruit Page in 2013. This is not a guy any competent or experienced presidential campaign lets near the inner circle of campaign operatives.

But Donald Trump did.

The Federal Government

Finally, we have the federal government itself and specifically the FBI.

Since the election of Donald Trump under the pretense of ‘draining the swamp,’ many of the federal government’s senior bureaucrats have aligned themselves against the incoming administration. This is not hyperbole. This is demonstrated through the mass resignations and retirements going on throughout the federal bureaucracy today.

As an example, almost all of the State Department’s senior leadership have retired or left office since the start of the Trump presidency. Many in the FBI’s leadership from the Obama administration have either left government service or appear on the verge of doing so.

Clumsily, and inaccurately, the Trump administration and ideologically aligned media have referred to these entrenched bureaucrats as part of the ‘deep state.’

That is a gross over-simplification and mischaracterization of reality.

To avoid repeating arguments made better elsewhere, I refer readers to an excellent essay by the National Review‘s Victor Davis Hanson on the underlying motivations behind many of these federal bureaucrats that actively attempted to prevent the election of Donald Trump.

In his article, “Hillary’s ‘Sure’ Victory Explains Most Everything,” Hanson offers a simple but compelling answer to why the permanent Washington, D.C. bureaucracy might have attempted to ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory in November 2016, even to the point of overkill.

Federal bureaucrats saw the inevitable Clinton victory as an opportunity to advance their careers and felt comfortable impeding the insurgent Trump campaign on the assumption that their extra-legal actions would never be exposed under a Clinton administration.

“The current players probably broke laws and committed ethical violations not just because they were assured there would be no consequences but also because they thought they’d be rewarded for their laxity,” writes Hanson. “Needlessly weaponizing the Obama FBI and the DOJ was akin to Hillary Clinton’s insanely campaigning in the last days of the 2016 campaign in red-state Arizona, the supposed ‘cherry atop a pleasing electoral map.'”

In my 20 years of working with and in the federal bureaucracy, what I saw on a day-to-day level was the subtle but profound art of professional advancement and self-preservation. Senior bureaucrats, in particular, were openly sensitive to the preferences of an incoming administration.

It doesn’t take a conspiratorial cabal within the permanent government to pursue nakedly self-serving outcomes, as often characterized in the deep state. It only requires career-minded bureaucrats that want to maximize their FERS retirement accounts.

Such is the real finding and relevance of the Nunes memo.


{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com}

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.