Forget the Steele dossier. There’s a hot new sub rosa document in Washington: a classified four-page memo prepared by House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes on alleged government abuses of surveillance authorities. The details of the memo remain sketchy, but to hear some members of Congress, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, its contents are so explosive that they could lead to criminal prosecution of government officials. Search #FISAMemo and #ReleasetheMemo on Twitter to find outraged Americans clamoring for the document to be released.
It’s impossible to comment definitively on the memo while it remains classified. At the moment, following a party-line vote by the House intelligence committee, the classified document is available to all members of Congress—though lawmakers reportedly must sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to view it. But as Trump supporters and Trump-aligned House Republicans beat the #ReleasetheMemo drumbeat, here is a modest prediction: If and when the memo is ever made public, it is likely to be just one more string of spaghetti tossed onto the wall by the now-familiar alliance of Trump-supporting congressional Republicans and sympathetic conservative media desperate to discredit and distract from the investigations into Russian election interference.
Committee Democrats have already cast doubt on the report, noting that Nunes put together the document without consulting his colleagues across the aisle. The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, dismissed it as “rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read.” The document, according to Schiff, “is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI.”
At this point, any work product from Devin Nunes concerning matters related to the Russia investigation should be taken with a healthy helping of salt. Although Nunes still chairs the House intelligence committee, he was forced to remove himself from its Russia probe after a bewildering March press conference in which he announced concern over possible incidental collection of Trump transition-team information. (Reports later showed that the White House had leaked Nunes the allegedly alarming material on “unmasking.”) After months, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake—originally sympathetic to Nunes’s concerns—reported that national security adviser H.R. McMaster had found no evidence to support Nunes’s allegations of wrongdoing.
Moreover, Nunes’s actions don’t quite look like those of a House intelligence committee chairman earnestly horrified by his discovery of serious surveillance abuses. He didn’t share any of the information he allegedly unearthed with his Democratic colleagues before drafting the memo. There’s no evidence that he sought to call witnesses to investigate his concerns. He just wrote a document, declared it shocking and made it available to people likely to be shocked.
So what is this shocking document? Fox News describes Nunes’s new memo as addressing “abuses of FISA,” including Nunes’s unmasking concerns. According to the New York Times, the memo’s main focus is the FBI’s alleged use of the Steele dossier to obtain a FISA warrant against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. So the document seems likely to be a reiteration of Nunes’s concerns over unmasking, presented alongside some other bugbears of the Trump defense. To put it another way: We’ve been here before.
At this point, the feedback loop of disinformation between Trump-friendly congressional Republicans, the White House and pro-Trump media has become familiar. The cycle runs like this: Congressional Republicans voice concerns about an alleged abuse of government authority under President Obama or an instance of anti-Trump bias; one of a small group of relatively marginal media outlets writes about their theories and investigations, drawing yawns from more traditional reporters; then Fox News—usually including Sean Hannity—devotes breathless attention to the story; President Trump tweets about it; Fox and Congress respond to the president’s tweets; and around and around we go.
But the substantive focus of the cycle of obfuscation and confusion looks slightly different on each turn. Think back to March 2017, when Nunes first alleged abuse of unmasking authority. The drumbeat since then hasn’t focused unceasingly on unmasking. Rather, this particular news cycle has moved from unmasking to the Steele dossier, to attacks on the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, to calls for a second special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton, to efforts to push out FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, to Uranium One, to the allegedly inflammatory text messages between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, to the Steele dossier, and back again. It’s a roulette wheel of stories aimed at discrediting the special counsel and the FBI. Some of them are even true.
And stories often return, looking slightly different the second time around. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee first called for a duplicate special counsel to investigate a grab bag of alleged offenses by Clinton before later tying their request to Uranium One. Likewise, Nunes appears to have looped together his concerns over unmasking with Republican discontent over the Steele dossier in this latest memo.
Trump hasn’t yet tweeted about the Nunes memo (though Donald Trump Jr. has). Otherwise, the mechanics of the #ReleasetheMemo media cycle look entirely familiar. Reps. Jordan and Gaetz appeared on Hannity to discuss the memo. On Twitter, apparent networks of Russia-linked accounts seem to be working to amplify the hashtag #ReleasetheMemo. So has Wikileaks, which offered a $1 million reward for a leaked copy of the document. Also in on the effort are the pro-Trump conspiracy theorists populating the internet’s underbelly: Commenters on the noxious alt-right subreddit r/The_Donald have posted about their efforts to promote the hashtag. These are the same actors, and patterns, that resurface routinely as the wheel of disinformation turns. Indeed, a staffer for Gaetz appears to have turned to r/The_Donald to crowdsource the first House Judiciary Committee resolution calling for a second special counsel.
It is reasonable to expect that the mysteries of the Nunes memo are at their zenith before the document is released and that it will begin to lose its power the moment it is subject to public scrutiny. And if the memo proves to be what now seems likely, debunking its claims won't take long—and the debunking also won’t matter all that much. By the time it is discredited, the president’s supporters in Congress and the media will have moved on to hyping some new amalgamation of would-be scandals, and we’ll be right back where we started, again. That the memo slots so easily into existing patterns in the far-right media landscape should make this clear. (Commenters on the pro-Trump internet have already incorporated the memo into a conspiracy theory about vast government abuses under President Obama, itself an extension of Pizzagate.)
In “Washington Journal,” her indispensable account of reporting on the Watergate investigation, Elizabeth Drew criticizes what she termed “cookie jar syndrome,” the effort to nail down a single, undeniable instance of criminal behavior by Nixon: “such an approach gets in the way of understanding the breadth and depth of the issues and in dealing with them. Maybe it is easier to zero in … on a particular question like ‘Who erased the tape?’ Our minds are getting tired. The focus shrinks in ever-smaller circles, until it lands on a tiny dot.”
Drew’s observation merits repeating amid efforts to further muddle the mysteries of the Russia investigation. Unless and until actual evidence is made public that the concerns in the document have merit, the focus shouldn’t shrink to the memo itself—as the American Civil Liberties Union did in a poorly-thought-out tweet urging President Trump to delay reauthorization of FISA Section 702 until the alleged surveillance abuses in the memo were brought to light. Instead, this is a moment to take a step back and assess the bigger picture, of which the memo appears to be just one part. And that picture shows a long-term collaboration between pro-Trump Republicans and pro-Trump media to systematically kick up dust around the Mueller investigation. The effort is not to definitively prove any one allegation of corruption or wrongdoing by the president’s enemies but, rather, to create an atmosphere of distrust and confusion. The longer people fail to recognize that effort for what it is, the better chance it has of working.
UPDATE: As of Monday, January 22, a few more developments have further called Nunes's seriousness into question. According to The Hill, the memo doesn’t actually contain any evidence for Nunes’s claims. It’s a “top-line summary” only, and the information it summarizes is available only to the Gang of Eight. So the many Republican representatives who characterized the memo as documenting abuses “worse than Watergate” or that “threaten democracy” appear to have reached those conclusions without viewing the underlying evidence. More importantly, the Daily Beast reports that Nunes has refused to share a copy of the documented with the FBI—the organization whose alleged abuses of power are at issue in Nunes’s memo. If Nunes were genuinely concerned by his discovery of the FBI’s misuse of FISA, why wouldn’t he want to speak to the Bureau about the issue?
House Republicans appear to be negotiating over whether or not to #ReleasetheMemo and under what circumstances, though it’s not yet clear whether the document will see the light of day. If and when it’s released, I’ll stand by my colleague Susan Hennessey’s prediction:
Your efforts? You control the majority. You just...decided to release it.
Prediction: Initial memo will be largely incoherent but contain damaging allegations. Process of debunking will be thorough but take long enough that damage from widespread confusion will be done. https://t.co/nXFCphNfyT
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) January 21, 2018