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The Nunes Memo and the Death of American Journalism

Remember when reporters spent their time digging for answers rather than advancing their favored political narratives?
New York Times

Charlie Savage is a clever guy. The New York Times reporter managed to get a full-fledged editorial into the news section of his paper when the controversial Nunes memo was released on Friday. He did it through a journalistic device that is likely to be more widely used in the future as standards of objectivity and fairness continue to wither: an “annotated” version of the original document.

The memo, three and a half pages long and compiled by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, documents what the Wall Street Journal calls “disturbing facts about how the FBI and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court appear to have been used to influence the 2016 election and its aftermath.” The Journal adds, “You don’t have to be a civil libertarian to be shocked by the details.”

Savage clearly isn’t shocked. But he shouldn’t be, at least not outwardly—not in his reporting on the document. His job is to be dispassionate. On the other hand, neither should he reveal his own stark bias through deft selections on what precisely he wishes to annotate and how he wishes to do so.

Charlie Savage is not alone. The country’s liberal establishment has joined ranks in dismissing the memo. It has attacked its veracity, portraying it as a conscious effort to mislead the American people on FBI and Justice Department efforts to get a surveillance order on a U.S. citizen connected to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This intense spin was on full display even before the memo was released, and then reached full flower afterward.

This was not surprising. The hysteria reflects a recent development in American politics whereby disturbing facts and suspicions, if they contradict the embraced narrative, are simply ignored or dismissed as combatants hammer away from their usual scripts. This isn’t confined to liberals; you can see it at a high pitch every night on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program.

But the liberal establishment’s response to the Nunes memo has been something to behold, and Charlie Savage’s annotated version represents a distilled specimen of this unfortunate decline in American political discourse—and the decline also in the journalistic values of old. For purposes of clarification, let’s look at the Savage annotations in juxtaposition with the Wall Street Journal’s take, which has the merit of being on the editorial page.

We begin with Kimberley A. Strassel’s Journal column on Friday, which counseled readers on how to read the memo once it appeared. One key question, she suggests, was whether the FBI had cause to initiate a full-blown counterintelligence probe into an active presidential campaign. “That’s a breathtakingly consequential and unprecedented action,” writes Strassel, “and surely could not be justified without much more than an overheard drunken conversation or an unsourced dossier. What hard evidence did the FBI have?”

Strassel also notes that the government has few tools more powerful or frightening than the ability to spy on American citizens. Indeed, we are in delicate territory here. “If the FBI obtained permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Trump aide Carter Page based on information from the Christopher Steele dossier,” she says, “that in itself is a monumental scandal.” In other words, the small details don’t really matter. If the FBI knew that the allegations of Steele’s now-famous dossier remained unverified and used them anyway, that would constitute an abuse of power and an effort to manipulate the FISA court.

Another fundamental question, in Strassel’s view, was whether the FBI used news stories unleashed through Steele leaks to corroborate the allegations of the dossier. She writes: “If the FBI used the conspiracy stories Mr. Steele was spinning as actual justification—evidence—to the court, that’s out of bounds.”

Finally, she urges readers to pay attention to whether the FBI withheld from the court that Steele was working ultimately for the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, with the gumshoe Fusion GPS firm and the Perkins Coie law firm as cutouts and conduits of cash to Steele.

Later that day, the Nunes memo was released, and, sure enough, it revealed that all of Strassel’s questions were answered in the affirmative. That’s what prompted the Journal, in a Saturday editorial, to suggest that the FBI had been used as “a tool of anti-Trump political actors” in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.

This is serious stuff, even without definitive answers on all matters involved. It goes without saying that when the government puts a U.S. citizen under surveillance, the legal punctilio, as crafted by Congress, should be observed. The evidence suggests that in this instance the prescribed safeguards may have been ignored. This is not something that can be dismissed as phony; it must be considered grounds for an exhaustive investigation.

You wouldn’t get any sense of the seriousness of this, however, by reading Charlie Savage’s annotations. Some are simply frivolous, others seriously misleading. None of them reflect any appreciation for the gravity of the matter at hand, particularly with regard to the issue of civil liberties.

Annotating a passage in which the Nunes memo identifies the signatories of the surveillance requests (the original one and subsequent renewals), Savage notes out of the blue that if President Trump were to use the wiretapping controversy to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, “the president could install someone who might be more willing to constrain or end the investigation” of independent counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into possible Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.

This is a diversionary aside. If Trump did that, the political backlash would be overwhelming. But in any event, this merely distracts attention from the central questions identified by Strassel and her editorial page. Whatever the merits of the Nunes memo, or lack of them, Trump’s use of it is irrelevant to any serious assessment.

Responding to the Nunes suggestion that “material and relevant information was omitted” in the surveillance order requests of the FBI and DOJ, Savage notes that the “memo’s critics” accuse Nunes himself of withholding important information. That includes that other evidence not connected to Steele, “much of which remains classified,” was also part of the surveillance requests. Savage mentions as an example the fact that Carter Page, the subject of the surveillance order, had attracted the FBI’s interest back in 2013, when it appeared two Russian agents were trying to recruit him.

Three points here: First, if Nunes withheld relevant and material information about other evidence used to secure the wiretap orders, then his memo will end up being seriously discredited. But Savage doesn’t seem to have any such information at hand. When he does he should report it; until then it is a smokescreen. Second, by all accounts Page ended up cooperating with the FBI during that 2013 investigation and was never prosecuted. Third, why is a supposedly objective journalist carrying water for the opposition in trying to discredit the Nunes memo before people have a chance to digest it? Isn’t that what editorialists and commentators do?

Next, Savage annotates this quote from Nunes: “Neither the initial application in October 2016 nor any of the renewals discloses the role of the DNC and the Clinton campaign or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, though the FBI knew this.”

Savage trots out a “FISA expert” named David Kris, who calls this the memo’s “money quote.” It is, says Kris, “potentially problematic and worthy of further review.” But he adds that, if the opposition funding had been disclosed in a general way—with a notation, say, that it had been funded “by people motivated to undermine Trump’s campaign”—then the FISA application “would be fine.” But neither Kris nor Savage has any idea if this was the case. So what is Savage’s purpose in attempting to fuzz up this Nunes allegation? There’s only one answer: to discredit it, without evidence.

Nunes makes much of the FISA application seeking to corroborate the Steele dossier with a Yahoo News article containing many of the same allegations. As the memo states: “This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo news.” Savage promptly quotes Nunes’ chief adversary on his committee, ranking member Adam Schiff of California, as calling this “a serious mischaracterization.” The article, says Schiff, was not used to corroborate the dossier. Savage quotes Kris as saying it would be “much more likely” for officials to cite news articles to demonstrate a certain urgency due to increasing public exposure.

But there is no evidence that Kris knows anything about this particular case, and some journalists—including Strassel, who has been covering this story meticulously for months—have written that officials do indeed sometimes use news reporting to corroborate evidence used in seeking surveillance clearance.

But here again we have Savage countering a congressional report with speculation on the part of a man who doesn’t know the details and a countercharge from a partisan opponent.

This particular annotation helps crystallize what’s going on here. This is a pivotal matter in the controversy. If Schiff is correct that Nunes perpetrated a “serious mischaracterization” on such a matter, then the entire memo will be discredited. If, on the other hand, Nunes is correct, his overall critique of the FBI and Justice will demand further attention. There was a time, not too many years ago, when journalists saw their jobs as going out to get the answers to such questions. That doesn’t seem to be how Savage views his responsibilities, at least in this instance.

Savage dismisses Nunes’ suggestion that Steele admitted in British court filings that he had met with Yahoo News at the direction of Fusion GPS and that the Perkins Coie law firm knew this as early as 2016. Those court filings, writes Savage, were dated after the initial surveillance application and after at least one renewal request. Thus, he asks, how was this relevant to the matter of those FISA applications? But the question here is not when Steele acknowledged his media leaks but whether they took place and whether the FBI knew he was peddling dirt on Trump to news organizations during the crucial weeks of the campaign. That’s not a trivial matter, and it’s impossible to believe the Bureau didn’t know. As Strassel points out, surely the FBI took note when those news articles began appearing, and surely officials would see that the substance of the articles matched the substance of the Steele dossier, which they had studied in detail. Thus do we see another gotcha effort on the part of Savage that fizzles upon inspection.

Savage’s annotations represent a kind of reflection of modern journalism, a far cry from the kind that prevailed in America before the decay that emerged with cable news, web discourse, and social media. In those more distant times, journalists didn’t align themselves with one side of a dispute or the other, ostentatiously answering serious allegations with counter-speculation by way of spreading confusion and thus undermining the allegations. Rather they rushed out to find the facts without regard to the political narratives of competing factions. They sought to remain above the fray. Does that sound quaint?

In the wake of the Nunes memo’s release, there’s still much we don’t know about how federal officials went about getting approval for placing a U.S. citizen—and a presidential campaign—under surveillance, including what evidence was marshaled for that purpose. Perhaps Nunes’ critics are correct in saying his memo raises more questions than it answers. But those questions are serious. Charlie Savage no doubt possesses the journalistic capacity to go find some of the answers. That would be a pursuit of elevated value.

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.