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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 [1] 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.

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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 [6], was released in September.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Robert Merry Responds to Charlie Savage’s Twitter Challenge"

#1 Comment By cka2nd On February 27, 2018 @ 1:00 am

“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.”

Well said perhaps, but also an example of the mainstream media’s obsession over competing stories (“He said. She said.”) at the expense of determining the actual truth, or to be perhaps less ambitious, the facts.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 27, 2018 @ 2:19 am

The NYT, even when it prints the part of the truth that fits its own very liberal corporate agenda, is a partisan political outlet. The days when it was a credible unbiased source, a kind of Walter Cronkite in print, are long gone. It ought not to any longer have any cachet for determining how the rest of us think, or even what constitutes news. Even though it thinks it does.

#3 Comment By Saul Goodman On February 27, 2018 @ 8:25 am

I thought the whole point of The American Conservative was that it was a conservative publication that could tell good faith, well thought out arguments from the stupid, tribal, obviously bad faith discourse that defines so much of the modern right media.

Merry’s inability to see the Nunes memo for what it clearly was at the outset, a desperate attempt to use both widespread ignorance of the FISA process and unrelated concerns about surveillance abuses he clearly doesn’t support to undermine a special counsel investigation of his president and possibly even himself.

I mean honestly, Nunes WROTE THE 702 SURVEILLANCE BILL that took every single concern good faith critics had about surveillance abuse, threw it in the trash and gave the “FBI/DOJ/Intel/Swamp” even more unrestrained power to spy on American citizens without due process. He did this weeks BEFORE he put out the memo about a supposed DeepState conspiracy to abuse the FISA process.

This is not a difficult puzzle or suss out, or a hopelessly complex “he said. she said” type situation where both sides argument has a certain amount of merit. It’s a very obviously corrupt Congressman running interference for a president being investigated using laughably and transparently bad arguments and tactics that people who follow national security policy (i.e. Charlie Savage) can easily spot.

If this is the type of journalism Merry brought to TAC then perhaps it is best he is stepping down.

#4 Comment By Johann On February 27, 2018 @ 9:06 am

Hard to make this stuff up. No way could it be a spy novel. The plot is too absurd. Truth is many times stranger than fiction. We have another example.

To sum it up, the Democrats did what they accuse Trump campaign members of doing in order to get government law enforcement and intelligence agencies to help them prove that their accusations.

#5 Comment By Johann On February 27, 2018 @ 9:09 am

Typo in previous comment. Strike “that” in the last sentence. Should read “…. to help them prove their accusations”

#6 Comment By Andres On February 27, 2018 @ 10:16 am

Mr Merry takes the Times to task for failing to adhere to their normal high standard of truth in reporting- that’s a fairly surprising sign of respect for the “Gray Lady,” isn’t it?
TAC, though, being a digest of opinion, has no similar obligation to present objective reporting.
It appears that the FBI did indeed make it clear to the FISA court that not only was Steele paid by parties partial to the Clinton campaign, but that he began the investigation on behalf of anti-Trump Republican interests.
What’s next- shall we impugn FISA, and cripple their ability to approve investigations? That would be a mixed blessing indeed…

#7 Comment By David Nash On February 27, 2018 @ 11:05 am

Alas, so much of modern “journalism is reduced to “Fake Facts”, “Fake News”, “Yo Mama wears army boots,” “So’s your Old Man,” and “Knock this chip off my shoulder.”

But, thus was it ever. And no one likes having it pointed out their public shirt has gravy stains. They get downright pugnacious, don’t they?

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 27, 2018 @ 11:23 am

It’s clear that the attempt to remove decisions about how to conduct domestic spying without political misuse against opponents failed. Rather than correcting the earlier egregious tactics of misuse of power, making it more accountable, establishing a Star Chamber process instead hid it completely from oversight, the opposite of what the Church Commission sought.

#9 Comment By David Nash On February 27, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

Fran, I say the following, not against you, nor in rancor, nor as an attempted gotcha, but in sheer impish cynicism at our current (deplorable) situation…

(said in the voice of Porky Pig) “I love Star Chambers, because they are perfect vehicles for the Current Occupant, who once remarked, ‘If you are a Star, you can do anything.’ Yes.”

Don’t mind me. If there weren’t something to laugh about, even a contrived something, in our gruesome political climate, we should go bonkers.

#10 Comment By Clyde Schechter On February 27, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

Never mind the state of journalism. Never mind the infantile state of politics.

What about the state of the Constitution? None of this would have been possible were it not for the existence of a secret court that operates under secret rules, hearing secret motions and issuing secret decisions. This is the real disgrace.

#11 Comment By Cratylus On February 27, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

In reply to Andres above who says:
“It appears that the FBI did indeed make it clear to the FISA court that not only was Steele paid by parties partial to the Clinton campaign, but that he began the investigation on behalf of anti-Trump Republican interests.”
BUT ABOVE MERRY DEMONSTRATES THIS IS NOT SO as follows:
“(The Democratic Memo) 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 (Wall Street) 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.”

Got that, Andres?
How could it be clearer.

#12 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 27, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

Ok, now that we know each party’s version, let the public decide. Release the entire FISA file-warts and all-and let the chips fall where they may. Enough with party-line and spin.

#13 Comment By fabian On February 27, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

an extraordinary struggle on the committee to try to shape public perceptions of the credibility of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
It’s not a struggle, I think they are pretty successful. With a reason.

#14 Comment By Steve Pickard On February 27, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

As a former prosecutor I can tell you that the Judge issuing the warrant is not a potted plant. The affidavit sets out the material facts so that the Court can determine initially what if any additioal information is necessary to make decision. Thus the Court during the in camera proceeding would put the Government to task for any thing it determines appropriate.
The Court is usually active in asking questions it deems important.
Mr. Merry does a great diservice to his readers not to make this point. He argues that a competent court cannot defend the process and the public.He gives solace to the main point of the Repubilican memo that the Court was decieved. This just would not happen unless everything the Government said or wrote was a lie. This claim was never made.
Besides Page was not some citizen picked at random. He was a person of serious concern. He may still be prosecuted anyway.

#15 Comment By Kenneth Almquist On February 27, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

The FISA application stated that:

“The identified U.S. person (Glenn Simpson) never advised Source #1 (Steele) as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s (Trump’s) ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.”

Robert Merry endorses the comment Wall Street Journal editorial complaining that this passage doesn’t say enough about the funding of Steele’s research. That editorial goes on to argue that:

“Disclosing Steele’s partisan funders…would have given the court reason to ask the FBI for more credible information before granting an eavesdrop order.”

The point, I presume, is that Steele might have slanted his findings in a way that would appeal to the funding source. But Glenn Simpson has a policy of not telling his subcontractors who is paying for the research, so Steele didn’t know the funding source. Steele, like the FBI, may have guessed that the funding was coming from someone opposed to the Trump campaign. But information that Steele did not have, like the fact that the funding specfically came from both the Clinton campaign and the DNC, could not have influenced him.

The Wall Street Journal also complains, in a portion of the editoral that Robert Merry agrees with, that the FBI didn’t use the words “political” or “partisan” or “campaign.” The FISA application refers to “Candidate #1’s campaign.” I would suggest to Merry that it’s kind of obvious that political campaigns are “political” and “partisan;” the judge doesn’t need to be told that. And contrary to the assertions of Merry and the Wall Street Journal, the word “campaign” does appear in the phrase “Candidate #1’s campaign.”

Unlike the Wall Street Journal, Robert Merry doesn’t try to argue that the FISA application omitted any information relevant to judging Steele’s credibility. While the Wall Street Journal wrong I can’t even figure out what what Robert Merry is trying to argue. I will note a few things:

Merry claims that Carter Page “is connected to the Trump campaign.” Actually, Page had left the campaign before the warrant was issued.

Merry claims that Page was “allegedly seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton.” The passive voice covers a multitude of possibilities, but I’m not aware of anyone making such an allegation.

Merry describes both Steele and Page as having “Russian ties,” but if he is attempting to suggest that Steele’s history of working against the Russian government is equivalent to Page being suspected of acting as an agent of that same government, Merry is wrong.

Merry claims that Steele was “seeking dirt on Donald Trump,” but the FISA warrant says that Steele was tasked with “research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia,” and Merry provides no evidence that this characterization is inaccurate. It matches Glenn Simpson’s testimony to Congress.

Putting aside the above points, Merry doesn’t present any sort of argument that the facts he alleges are reason to question the FISA warrant application. Indeed, Merry acknowledges that the FISA warrant application might be “routine and defensible.” The burden of proof, in my view, should be on those claiming that the FBI acted improperly. To the extent that “old fashioned values” call for journalists to create the impression that it is an open question whether the FBI acted improperly, in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing, those values deserve to be out of fashion.

#16 Comment By Dale On February 28, 2018 @ 12:01 am

I think one comment covers Merry’s comments. Some of us believed that the neoconservative illness would not spread to those who we believed were true/paleo-conservatives. I guess we were wrong.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 28, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

A former prosecutor alleges that all that’s necessary for impeccable due process is a secret meeting of a prosecutor and judge alone, which the public is normally allowed no knowledge of, in which records are not kept and they may never be known, except that as a result the judge does what the prosecutor wants more than 99 per cent of the time. An enviable record of justice unmatched in open courts, which therefore ought to adopt this successful model. From a prosecutor’s point of view, anyhow.