• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Memos: Come and Go like Dominoes

January 2018

For all that the House Intelligence Committee’s much-ballyhooed “memo” lacks in clarity, it makes up for in controversy. Its contents, neatly packed into the confines of a four-page missive, are, at best, suggestive and at worst, subversive. Above all, though, they’re inconclusive—and frustratingly so.

For weeks, the memo was touted as a paradigm-shifting revelation, one that would finally vitiate Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s investigation and vindicate the subject of his scrutiny, President Trump. We were warned to expect nothing less, and the anticipation dangled above heads for days. Pundits spoke either of the memo’s precariousness or its triviality, depending on the platform and the network from which they earn their keep. Among those on the right, it was considered an explosive, revelatory cause célèbre that would forever exonerate President Trump; as for those on the left, it was thought to be a low, cherry-picked, and odious attempt to muddle our already confused public opinion about the Trump-Russia investigation.

Congressional Democrats warned of its apocryphal nature. They alleged that its authorship was dubious, its motivations completely political, and its conclusions unbelievable. They claimed that declassifying its contents would jeopardize our country’s national security; to divulge it, they said, would be to put at risk our national intelligence departments and the necessarily furtive ways in which they operate. On the other hand, House and Senate Republicans were clamoring for it to be declassified without another moment’s hesitation. They contended that the American people had a right to know the truth, no matter how unsettling that truth may be. Further, they wanted to expose, at the cost of all else, the tenebrous, partisan, back-alley conduits through which the Department of Justice and FBI seems to have worked, hand in glove—they first suspected and have now concluded—with the Obama Administration and the Clinton campaign. Expediency, in this case, triumphed over any concern for national security and eventually, the memo was released.

President Trump brought this to be, when on Friday afternoon his administration rubber-stamped it, sent it back to Congress, and awaited with everyone else its long-anticipated debut. At that point, without another impediment or delay, the memo was posted online for America’s viewing pleasure—or its irrepressible horror. People dug into the text, excavating it line by line for proof of the so-called “deep-state”, scouring from one margin to the next for evidence of systemic malfeasance, bias, and partisan abuse, and quietly hoping, in the backs of their minds, to find emerging from it a government more innocent than they’d been led to believe.

Much the way one’s hunger depreciates after each subsequent bite, the excitement with which we received the memo blunted after it was read and then re-read more than once. While we were ravenous to grab and ingest it whole, what we needed to do was to digest it, slowly to churn it, and carefully to emulsify it into its nuance and bits. Only in this way could we understand and be nourished or nauseated by its inflammatory, invaluable content.

After the necessary re-readings, then, what we’ve come to know is this: the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) jointly acquired a FISA warrant to investigate and surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign affairs advisor and, to the very best of my knowledge, a shameless apologist for Russia’s rascal of a president, Vladimir Putin (whether or not this had any bearing on his appointment to the Trump campaign remains to be seen and probably won’t be until—or, rather if—the FBI concludes its investigation). This on its own is nothing beyond the pale (a figure like Page is almost certain to pop up on someone’s radar in any number of intelligence agencies around D.C.), but the controversy arises when one examines the way in which the FBI and DOJ went about securing this FISA warrant, which would, in turn, allow them to keep their eye on Page. If the memo is to be believed, and at this point, there’s little reason to think it shouldn’t be, the FBI and DOJ submitted their FISA warrant request based on the findings of Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier—that explosive cluster of calumny, scandal, espionage, and what can only be called shaky veracity.

You’ll recall that the dossier wasn’t some innocuous, disinterested inquiry into the international goings-on of a one Mr. Donald Trump, but rather a politically-motivated hit piece. It was initiated by the Washington Free Beacon on the behalf of its preferred candidate, Marco Rubio, only to be later funded and sustained by the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. It was, at its essence, a cursory and ham-fisted attempt at opposition research and, as such, it left in its wake more questions than answers (you’ll recall, in all of its lewd detail, the story that told of a few Russian prostitutes who, at Mr. Trump’s behest, proceeded to urinate on what once was President Barack Obama’s hotel bed, all while a smitten Trump looked on approvingly, bathing in the sallow schadenfreude and urine-soaked indignity). Some of Steele’s intel was verifiable (the “golden showers” story, as it came to be known, unfortunately was not), most of it was apocryphal, but the FBI and the DOJ took it for what it was worth and considered it in earnest. They must’ve come to the conclusion that it was sufficiently credible for their use, and thus applied it to and rationalized it for their FISA warrant request.

Or did they? It’s at this point we stumble into a bit of confusion. The memo alleges the FBI and DOJ of having committed the statisticians’ most heinous of crimes: that, of course, is the egregious act of omission. Neither the FBI nor the DOJ revealed to the FISA court whence they were getting their information. (As an aside, we must here call into question the level of scrutiny, or, rather, the lack thereof, with which the FISA court reviews its applications. It will be, I think, an important issue for a later time). Nevertheless, the FBI and the DOJ conveniently concealed the fact that they were basing their FISA application and their intrigue into Page, and by extension, President Trump, on an unsubstantiated and unabashedly biased dossier (it’s come out recently that Steele was “desperate” for Trump to lose the 2016 election—a candid, albeit disquieting admission of the spy’s bias, and one that is included in the memo).

Steele eventually fell from the intelligence community’s good graces after having made his opinions and his presence just a bit too publicly known. He entertained a lengthy interview with the left-leaning publication, Mother Jones, in which he confided to journalist David Corn, in perhaps too forthcoming and eager a manner, his feelings about Trump and the entire situation. But while he had become in the eyes of the FBI and the DOJ a persona non-grata, his accretion of stories and intel remained very much in play. Ultimately, that lead to their clandestine inclusion in the FISA application and consequently, into the GOP memo we see before us today.

If this is true, and the FBI and the DOJ went about securing their FISA warrant in so surreptitious a way, those restless “deep-state” conspiracy theorists can ready themselves for their day in the sun. At long last, validation will be theirs, and they can celebrate in knowing that victory found its way to their curious little fringes on the outposts of consensus.

But before that can happen, and before they can claim success, President Trump must declassify the original FBI and DOJ FISA applications. This is the only way that the issue can be put to rest. In doing so, President Trump would lay bare, unequivocally and conclusively, the way in which those two departments went about acquiring their warrant. If it’s as the memo has led us to believe, and the FBI and DOJ sought to investigate Page because of a dossier itself doused in political enmity against Trump, the intelligence community as a whole will have to answer for its partisanship and deceit. And if that turns out to be the case, I’m not sure how merciful the American public would be. They might soon find themselves handing over badge, gun, and the confidence once invested in them. The only way to know this, though, is if the White House does as previously mentioned and declassifies the original FISA application. Unfortunately for fans of full transparency, the administration appears hesitant to do this, which leaves us to speculate and wait.

As mentioned, there’s more than just one bite to this saga. After having taken all of this in, howsoever big the mouthful is, there remains one final, particularly important morsel to chew. Buried at the end of the memo is a small nugget, one that’s nearly imperceptible if, like me, you were swept up in the potential fall-out of the preceding three pages. It reads like an involuntary addendum—one the authors felt compelled against every fiber of their being to insert. In a terse line or two it reveals that the FBI and the DOJ’s investigation into President Trump and his Russian connections actually predates their interest in Carter Page. It was, in fact, George Papadopoulos who first pushed into motion this Rube Goldberg of an investigation and imbroglio we can’t now stop.

To recount, Papadopoulos was the former Trump aid and is the current enemy of the state who came nearest to colluding with the Russian government in the lead up to the 2016 election. By admitting that it was him and not Carter Page who stirred the investigation into being, the authors—for all intents and purposes—have protected Special Counselor Robert Mueller.

In a word, then, the memo changes everything while keeping everything the same. A light has been shone on the FBI and the DOJ, removing the shadows within which they once worked. Now, they’ll be held to a heightened state of scrutiny, if they aren’t already held to the lowest depths of contempt. As for the Trump-Russia investigation—it will march on to slow beat of persistence and truth. Mueller may not have the carte-blanche he once enjoyed, but no one and no impediment lies before him. And finally, insofar as the Democrats are concerned, they are preparing their own version of a memo, whose security clearance and release they expect in the forthcoming days. Theirs will be a rebuttal, I suppose, to the GOP’s. The one memo leads to the next, just as the one domino knocks into its neighbor. When it’s all said and done, we’ll be interested to see who’s left standing.

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