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Robert Merry Responds to Charlie Savage’s Twitter Challenge

Charlie Savage of the New York Times has thrown down a Twitter challenge to me based on my TAC web article dated February 6 in which I took him to task for what I described as an editorial masquerading as a news story. The subject was the famous Devin Nunes memo alleging inappropriate actions on the part of FBI and Justice Department officials in seeking authorization from the FISA court to initiate surveillance on an active presidential campaign, that of Donald Trump.

I don’t blame Mr. Savage for throwing down this challenge. I was pretty hard on him in that piece. And now, in the wake of the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo, we can see that some of the points he made to discredit that document have also been made by those Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. Mr. Savage’s Twitter reproach seems to suggest that he considers the Democratic memo to be a definitive rebuttal to Nunes. The questions surrounding this matter, he implies, are now answered. The Democrats won the controversy.

This is unfortunate because Mr. Savage is accentuating the attitude that I criticized in the first place. In my February 6 piece, I wasn’t writing about the Nunes memo so much as about the state of American journalism, as reflected in Mr. Savage’s “annotated” version of the memo clearly designed to discredit it before it could be absorbed by the public. I wrote that this constituted an editorial that ought not to have appeared on the Times’ news pages.

By way of illustration, I note here Savage’s sidebar article alongside the paper’s weekend coverage of the Democratic memo release, entitled “5 Takeaways From the Release of the Democratic Memo.” It’s a commendable piece of work that largely lays out, in neutral terms, what the Democrats wrote about the Nunes memo. That wasn’t the brand of journalism with which Savage greeted the Nunes memo itself, and one wonders why the old-fashioned standards are applied to one but not the other.

I must take up now Mr. Savage’s slam upon the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley A. Strassel as a purveyor of “credulous stenography.” I don’t know Ms. Strassel and feel no particular need to defend her, but the Savage slam is unfair. In my piece, I invoked her writings on the FBI’s FISA court applications as a way of noting that respectable journalists of opinion (as opposed to news) had expressed serious misgivings about the way the FISA matters were handled. I noted with approval her view that when the federal government initiates an investigation into a presidential campaign, that is a very serious matter indeed. It represents a potentially dangerous precedent and thus deserves dispassionate inquiry undergirded by a forbearance from jumping to conclusions before the facts are in.

Unfortunately, that forbearance was not manifest in Mr. Savage’s “annotation” piece. He wishes now to invoke the Democrats as justification for his earlier speculations, but that only works if the Democratic memo does indeed end the controversy as he implies in his tweet. It doesn’t. Questions remain. And by wrapping himself in Democratic arguments before the Democrats had even issued their arguments, Savage revealed that he wasn’t playing by the old rules of journalism. Now he reveals it further by embracing the Democratic rebuttal as the final word on the subject.

I am not a reporter writing for the news pages of a major paper (though I once had such a job in the mists of my career). Now, as the editor of a conservative opinion publication and website, I’m not bound by the journalistic strictures I’m urging upon Mr. Savage. But I will note that, while my February 6 piece posited that the Nunes memo raised serious questions, it never embraced Nunes’ conclusions in the same way that Savage rejected them. I used the word “if” on three occasions, suggesting at two points that if the anticipated Democratic rebuttal refuted Nunes on crucial points, his memo would end up being “seriously discredited.”

Has it been? Unfortunately in today’s political climate a Democratic memo can’t fully discredit a Republican one—or vice versa. Only release of the FISA documents can answer these questions definitively, which the country desperately needs. That’s why it is good that both the Times and the Journal, along with many other voices, have called for a full release.

In the meantime, questions remain. The Democratic memo argues that the FBI and Justice Department were entirely appropriate in withholding from the FISA court that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid for the “dossier” by former spy Christopher Steele, which was used in part to secure the surveillance authorization against the Trump campaign’s Carter Page. But we now have, thanks to the Democratic memo, the exact language used to inform the court that some interested parties were involved. It reads in part: “The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person [Glenn Simpson of the oppo-research firm Fusion GPS, who was hired by the Clinton campaign and then retained Steele] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] campaign.”

As the Journal puts it in an editorial (probably written by Ms. Strassel), “Speculates? Likely? Could? The dossier was paid for by actors whose overriding purpose was to defeat Mr. Trump.” The editorial adds that the FBI didn’t even give the court the benefit of words such as “political,” “partisan,” or “campaign,” let alone noting the Clinton or DNC connection.

So let’s parse this. We have the FBI and Justice Department seeking a surveillance authorization against a person with Russian ties who also is connected to the Trump campaign and allegedly seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton—and, in pursuing the warrants, they neglect to note to the court that part of the submitted evidence came from a man with Russian ties seeking dirt on Donald Trump and paid by the Clinton campaign.

The Democratic memo suggests this is all quite routine and defensible. Maybe it is, but it also gives rise to questions and criticisms that lead to disagreement and debate.

Therein lies a story—a news story. And this news story will continue until we have the facts. The Times calls the matter “an extraordinary struggle on the committee to try to shape public perceptions of the credibility of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.” Well said. And this extraordinary struggle isn’t confined to the House Intelligence Committee. It suffuses the entire body politic. That’s why good journalism based on old-fashioned values is now more important than ever.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.

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