The Nunes memo

It’s out. The famous Devin Nunes memo, memorialized by the #releasethememo hashtag popular on the Right, is now out, over the vehement objections by the Justice Department and the FBI. It’s been declassified by President Trump, and has been publicly released. I’ve read it; everyone’s read it. It’s not very long, so reading it takes maybe five minutes. I’m not going to link to it, though, because it’s not remotely hard to find, and I’m not driving traffic there.

Okay. Conspiracy theories involve forming tiny scraps of evidence into a single narrative, while ignoring mountains of evidence inconvenient to that narrative. Fact is, we humans do that, take this insight and that observation and form a gestalt. I hear a rustling sound and smell something musty, and conclude ‘there’s a sabre-tooth tiger in them woods over yonder.’ And we all grab our spears. Human evolution selected for gestalt-creation, is what I’m saying.

But it lets us down. And sometimes we make fools of ourselves. That wasn’t a tiger, it was a squirrel, and no, President Bush did not blow up the Twin Towers, and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Conspiracy theories make even very bright people seem stupider than they in fact are, because the piles of evidence conspiracy theories ignore are so massive.

The Devin Nunes memo, in other words, is the central document in a particularly idiotic conspiracy theory.

During the last Presidential election, a research organization called Fusion GPS was hired by political opponents of Donald Trump’s to do opposition research on him. They hired a former British spy named Christopher Steele to do those parts of the research involving ties between Trump and Russian. Steele was a good choice. He had lots of anti-Putin Russian contacts, and was well-regarded as an intelligence agent. He sent over several preliminary findings, some of which were fairly salacious, many of which were, by his own admission, not well corroborated. Those findings form the document that has become known as the Steele dossier. Steele became so alarmed by what he was finding–specifically that the Russians were trying to influence the US Presidential election in favor of Donald Trump–that he took his information to the FBI. And US intelligence services accepted the dossier, though it wasn’t a particularly important source for their own investigation. They had already gotten most of it from other sources. Anyway, once the Republicans who initiated this oppo project went down in flames, the Democrats took it over, and paid Fusion GPS for it.

The Nunes memo alleges that the Steele dossier was the only source used by the FBI when they renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant for Carter Page, who was named by Trump’s campaign as a foreign policy advisor. This is, apparently, a horrible violation of Page’s civil liberties. And the FISA warrant was only renewed because the Justice Department and FBI are unified in opposition to President Trump. So they’ve invented a phony Russia scandal to attack his Presidency. See, an FBI agent named Peter Strzok triggered the entire counterintelligence investigation because of his personal bias against Trump, as suggested by his inappropriate text messages saying so to his mistress, fellow FBI employee Lisa Page (no relation to Carter).

Where to start?

To begin with, Carter Page is exactly, precisely the person Congress had in mind when they passed FISA. He is exactly the person on whom US intelligence agencies should be conducting surveillance. In 2013, the FBI was investigating a Russian spy ring run by a guy named Victor Podobnyy. Podobnyy recruited Page. He was captured in a wiretap saying this about Page:

He writes to me in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could be rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to learn lots of money. …… I will feed him empty promises. … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.

It’s more fun if you say it in a Russian accent.

Podobnyy also was quoted as saying he thought Page was an idiot. That’s not really relevant. Point is, a Russian spy recruited Page three years before Trump made him a foreign policy advisor.

Then, during the campaign, Page flew to Moscow to talk to top Russian officials about, what? Lifting sanctions. Which is what the Russians wanted from Trump to begin with. I thought Rachel Maddow summed it all up beautifully last night:

That memo is a House Republican effort to try to make you believe that either the third or fourth renewal of that surveillance warrant against Carter Page is a terrible scandal. How could anybody approve that? There are multiple reports that President Trump fervently believes this memo is what he needs to end the Robert Mueller investigation, because this memo will make America believe that only terrible, what, Clinton stooges would support the third or fourth renewal of a foreign agent surveillance warrant on the guy who’s been on the FBI’s counter-intelligence radar since at least 2013 when he played a starring role as the enthusiastic idiot in a convicted Russian spy ring in New York who then later turned up multiple times in Moscow denouncing the United States, praising Vladimir Putin, and trying to get Russian business deals for himself. With Russian state run companies. While meeting with Russian government officials.

If it’s a scandal that that guy, Carter Page, recruited by Russian spies, an enthusiastic endorser of Vladimir Putin, a guy who flew off in the middle of the campaign to talk to Russian government officials about relaxing US sanctions on Russia, if it’s a scandal that that guy got a FISA warrant renewed, then I’m a sword-swallower.

But the memo puts the FBI in a tough position. Of course they had lots of reasons to want to surveill Carter Page. But many of those came from foreign intelligence sources, who nobody wants to compromise. The Steele dossier isn’t particularly important, but it’s also not wrong; Steele had sources for all of it, and while it should certainly be viewed skeptically, its existence is also not any kind of scandal. So Steele was one of the sources used to apply for a FISA warrant. Big deal.

And the Peter Strzok/Lisa Page stuff is just ridiculous. Strzok and Page didn’t like Donald Trump and didn’t want him to become President. They also didn’t like Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, and didn’t want them to become President either. Strzok and Page were having an affair, and much of their relationship apparently involved snarky political texts back and forth. They were all-purpose mockers, deeply cynical about the entire American political system. That’s not an unreasonable position.

There is no deep state anti-Trump conspiracy. There are, however, lots of people who think Donald Trump is a sick, sad joke of a President. FISA powers were certainly not abused in relation to Carter Page–he’s exactly the guy who should have been surveilled. But FISA is questionable law, and I wish it included more civil liberty safeguards.  I’m also pretty sure Oswald shot JFK. And Bin Laden’s guys flew the planes. And Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. When the history of Russia-gate is written, the Nunes memo will be a footnote. Because it’s nuts.

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