On Friday, the House Intelligence Committee released the formerly classified memo written by Representative Devin Nunes casting doubt on the political motivations of the FBI. Some say it proves bias; others have demonstrated how it omits facts and muddies timing to make a partisan point. But as writing goes, it’s like chasing a rabbit down the rabbit hole.
There are excellent analyses of the Nunes memo in places like the Lawfare blog, National Review, and The New York Times. It certainly has created more confusion than clarity. I’m not here to point out the bias in the memo — it’s absolutely biased, as is the Democratic counter-memo, which will doubtless be leaked soon. I’m going to explain why and how the writing is murky.
There is a subject line, which reads like this:
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Abuses at the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation
As my regular readers know, the title should tell the story. This doesn’t. It leaves out key words like “Donald Trump.”
A more accurate description would be this title:
How the FBI slanted evidence in its investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign
Of course, that’s a bit too honest for politics.
As the text begins, we see that the memo lacks what every complex piece of writing needs: an executive summary. In this case, the missing summary would look like this:
The FBI got a warrant to spy on Carter Page, former adviser to the Donald Trump campaign. They didn’t tell the court that their evidence for the warrant was biased and questionable. This shows that the FBI is out to get Donald Trump.
The first statement is a fact. The second statement is an opinion; there’s evidence here, but lots of information and context is missing. The third statement is not in the memo, but it’s what you’re supposed to read between the lines.
If Nunes or his staff had actually written a clear executive summary like this, it would have saved us all a lot of time in evaluating the rest of the memo.
Translating the murkiest bits of the Nunes memo
The memo is trying to make a case. Clarity matters for that. Let’s look at some of the most confusing passages in the memo.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
This memorandum provides Members an update on significant facts relating to the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and their use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the 2016 presidential election cycle. Our findings, which are detailed below, 1) raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and 2) represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process.
Again, this doesn’t tell the truth fully or clearly. “Significant,” “raise concerns” and “troubling” are weasel words. And the purpose of the memo is not to provide an update, it is to generate accusations. Here’s an accurate translation:
This memorandum demonstrates that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in illegal ways in their investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Clearer, but more incendiary.
This passage is supposed to get to the heart of the matter (I added bold here to indicate passive voice):
[T]he FISC’s rigor in protecting the rights of Americans, which is reinforced by 90-day renewals of surveillance orders, is necessarily dependent on the government’s production to the court of all material and relevant facts. This should include information potentially favorable to the target of the FISA application that is known by the government. In the case of Carter Page, the government had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts. However, our findings indicate that, as described below, material and relevant information was omitted.
Accusations sound much less nasty when written in the passive voice, like this one. Here’s what it’s trying to say:
The FBI agents investigating collusion with Russia included only information to show that a warrant to spy on Carter Page was worthwhile, and didn’t include anything in his defense.
Here’s a passage about Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Trump dossier that the FBI used to back up its request for the warrant (bold here was in the original).
Before and after Steele was terminated as a source, he maintained contact with DOJ via then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, a senior DOJ official who worked closely with Deputy Attorneys General Yates and later Rosenstein. Shortly after the election, the FBI began interviewing Ohr, documenting his communications with Steele. For example, in September 2016, Steele admitted to Ohr his feelings against then-candidate Trump when Steele said he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” This clear evidence of Steele’s bias was recorded by Ohr at the time and subsequently in official FBI files—but not reflected in any of the Page FISA applications. . . . During this same time period, Ohr’s wife was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump. Ohr later provided the FBI with all of his wife’s opposition research, paid for by the DNC and Clinton campaign via Fusion GPS. The Ohrs’ relationship with Steele and Fusion GPS was inexplicably concealed from the FISC.
Got all that? Here’s what it sounds like in normal language.
Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele to dig up dirt on Donald Trump. He supplied his research to senior Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Bruce Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS. After digging up all this dirt, Steele decided that Trump shouldn’t be president.
Laid out this way, it’s clear that Steele was biased — but people who do opposition research aren’t hired for their balanced perspectives, they’re hired for their investigation skills. It was the job of the FBI to evaluate the validity of the claims in the dossier. There’s nothing in the memo about whether they did that job well, or whether these claims, regardless of their sources, were accurate — or at least accurate enough to get a warrant.
This is the most confusing bit of all:
The Page FISA application also mentions information regarding fellow Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, but there is no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between Page and Papadopoulos. The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok. Strzok was reassigned by the Special Counsel’s Office to FBI Human Resources for improper text messages with his mistress, FBI Attorney Lisa Page (no known relation to Carter Page), where they both demonstrated a clear bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton, whom Strzok had also investigated. The Strzok/Lisa Page texts also reflect extensive discussions about the investigation, orchestrating leaks to the media, and include a meeting with Deputy Director McCabe to discuss an “insurance” policy against President Trump’s election.
OK, let’s get this straight. Strzok, who was fired for bias, opened an investigation based on information from Papadopolous, whose was mentioned in the application for the warrant, but we don’t know how or why. This is hard to translate, but I’ll take a shot at it:
You can ignore anything from Papadopolous, because he was supervised by an agent who was biased against Trump. I can’t tell you what the Papadopolous revelations have to do with this bit about Carter Page and a warrant, but I just wanted to get that in here.
ROAM explains the problem with this memo
First, let’s get this out the way: can you believe we are talking about memos and dossiers in the Twenty-First Century? This sounds like a bunch of ad executives talking in 1972.
To understand the lack of clarity in this memo, recall the ROAM framework for writing: Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression. Here’s how I interpret ROAM for this memo:
- Ostensibly, other members of the Intelligence Committee.
- Actually, after this release, voters and media.
- Ostensibly, to clarify concerns the author has about processes at the Department of Justice.
- Actually, to cast doubt on bias at the FBI and thereby call into question anything it comes up with to threaten Trump.
- Ostensibly, to rein in abuses at the FBI.
- Actually, to provide a justification for bias-based firings.
- Ostensibly, that Nunes is delivering an objective and concerned analysis.
- Actually, that Nunes is presenting incomplete and biased information, exactly as he accuses the FBI of doing.
The challenge for the author here is that he cannot come off as balanced and partisan at the same time. If he’s partisan, the quality of his work is in doubt. If he were balanced, we’d see some of the information he’d omitted. Sometimes, it pays to raise points that show you’re not taking only one side. That’s what Nunes says the FBI needed to do. I wish our elected officials would do the same, but of course, this is politics.