Former Spies on Nunes Memo: Underwhelmed, Unconvinced

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Cipher Brief experts were underwhelmed by the “Nunes Memo,” made public Friday, despite the objections of Democrats, leaders in the intelligence community, and the FBI itself.

Written by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House intelligence committee, the memo alleges political bias on the part of the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) in conducting its investigation into the Trump campaign and any improper connections to the Russian government.

The memo purports to be a summary of the justification given by the FBI and DOJ to FISA courts when applying for a warrant to pursue intelligence collection on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, which was granted and then renewed multiple times. The memo was authored by Republicans on the House intelligence committee.  

Read the full memo here.

We asked our experts to weigh in on the contents of the memo and the potential problems associated with its release. Their conversations are adapted for print below.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, Former Director, CIA & NSA

That’s it?  That’s your best shot at FBI and DOJ corruption?  Quit wasting my time.

STEVE HALL, Retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations

First of all, the memo is very brief, and therefore it’s going to be extremely incomplete. But I think it’s actually very cleverly done. The Republicans have made a whole bunch of very serious allegations, which basically suggest that maybe there’s something wrong with our entire FISA process by which the U.S. government and the FBI conduct surveillance activities against people here in the United States. That’s the implication, that it’s somehow corrupt or that it’s somehow so bad that mistakes are made. I think quite the opposite is true.

I don’t understand how this memo couldn’t be cherry-picked. When you’ve got a three-and-a-half-page memo that covers…these FISA things are 90-day shots, and then you have to go back to the FISA courts to re-make your case from the very beginning. So there are probably literal hundreds of pages of justification. And we’ve got three and a half pages. Absolutely stuff has been left out, and I would argue it’s politically motivated what has been left out.

The insidious thing about the document is that it uses a trick that the Russians use quite often. It makes a whole bunch of allegations which can only be cleared up by making public the entire FISA filing.

But of course, all of that is classified, and publicizing it would be damaging to sources and methods. So the Republicans behind this memo are making allegations that can’t be proven or disproven. Recall the Russians responding to allegations of election interference with, “Well, where’s the proof?” The Russians know the proof is classified and we can’t put it out. The same thing is being done here with this memo.

But the answer to the conundrum may be the ongoing inspector general investigation. They can deal with classified information all day long, and they can put out redacted or sanitized versions of their findings. So there’s really no reason to do anything but to see what the inspector general concludes here, and let that either support or disprove the claims put forward by many Republicans, in this memo and elsewhere.

One of my primary concerns for this memo is that its motivation is to cast doubt on what is a very sensitive area of our open society, which is when, how, and under what conditions legally can the FBI conduct collection operations against people in the country, or even American citizens. I think when you start casting doubt on that, suggesting that the FBI didn’t do the right thing or the FISA judges got the wool pulled over their eyes, that’s a really dangerous thing, and it does erode what is a very sensitive and critical part of our democracy.

If there’s any silver lining to this, I don’t see much information in the memo that appears to be compromising to sources and methods.

JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Clandestine Service/Chief of Station

I believe that it was a mistake to release the memo for several reasons. Most importantly, it is clearly part and parcel of a partisan effort to attack the FBI investigation, and not an effort to better inform the American people. It sends a dangerous signal to those who might share intelligence with us that we are unreliable partners. Even at the highest levels of our intelligence oversight apparatus, hyper-partisanship wins out and protecting secrets takes a back seat.

That said, my first impression was that it was underwhelming argument. Republican Congressman Nunes purposely omits anything that might undercut his pre-cooked conclusion, and focuses exclusively on the aspect that best supports his case. Even then, however, his case is not very strong. He carefully avoids any mention of the actual content of the Steele document, instead focusing entirely on the democratic connection to the prime contractor (Fusion GPS).

However, the details matter. The FBI is responsible for following up on potential leads. Just like when the FBI gets reporting of a possible terrorist attack, it is their responsibility to check it out.

In this case, it would have been professionally irresponsible if the FBI did not follow up on this damning and explosive counterintelligence information, even if they were not 100% certain of the source’s reasons for passing on the lead.

Nunes also omits any other information that the government might have used to apply for the warrant. The fact that Page’s FISA was renewed three times seems to suggest that the government had additional information.

Nunes seems to put a lot of stock in the fact that Steele was a source, and that he was biased against (President Donald) Trump. First, I don’t believe Steele was a source in the way that Nunes is implying. He was not a clandestinely handled source, under institutional control of the FBI or U.S. Frankly, we don’t run British citizens as sources. Indeed, if he were really a “source”, the British government would have every right to be furious at their US partners.

Also, despite Nunes’ claims, being a “source” doesn’t mean that it is a criminal act to mislead the FBI. The FBI runs all sorts of biased sources who provide good and bad information. Further, Steele was a British citizen and had every right to speak to the press. Likewise, the FBI had every right to meet with him or discontinue contact.

Even if he were a source, all sources (all people) have biases. It is the job of intelligence officers to take into account a potential source’s bias, reliability, access, motivations, experience, expertise and perspective.

In any event, I don’t find it a convincing argument that the U.S. could not assess Steele’s information because he expressed a biased viewpoint against then-candidate Trump. By the fall of 2016 (when he allegedly stated that he didn’t want Trump to win the election), he had already reported extremely damning and damaging information suggesting that Trump might be involved in a criminal conspiracy with Vladimir Putin. Would we expect him to want Trump to become President given what his sources were telling him? It suggests to me that he was confident in his sources, not that he was inherently biased.

Frankly, I’d be biased too if I believed that Trump was beholden to the Kremlin.

Brian Garrett-Glaser contributed to this report.

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2 Replies to “Former Spies on Nunes Memo: Underwhelmed, Unconvinced”
  1. I agree with General Hayden that the “Memorandum” is a waste of our time, at least on one level.

    Yet–looked at another way — it’s extremely revealing if we apply a “lens of the target” analysis.

    In particular, how might the President Trump’s pattern and practice of behavior and communications, along with the concomitant trajectory of the Mueller investigation?

    At this point the President appears to be acting in a manner designed most to protect him and his immediate family. To accomplish that, he has turned to techniques which have worked for him before as a businessman, even though such actions threaten to undercut the credibility of the Bureau (ref. previous attacks on those who have criticized him or launched litigation against Trump interests in the past, as well as Trump’s comments about CIA following its assessment about Russian interference during the Obama presidency).

    Given the “…so, this is it?” quality of the Nunes Memorandum, along with its brevity in relation to the matter’s complexity, it appears the release suggests a degree of desperation — grabbing at straws, so to speak, as well as a potential step that could lead to the call for a second Special Prosecutor to investigate DOJ and the Bureau, with the hope that the noise thus created would in some way serve to cancel out the pending conclusions and recommendations of the Mueller investigation.

    Disheartening, and in seeming breach of this president’s fiduciary role and his oath of office, is President Trump’s apparent willingness to put his own (and his family’s) personal and professional interests ahead of the nation’s best interest, in addition to our national security. The one clear beneficiary appears to be the Russian president, as he stands back and pushes his way further down the learning curve, including the means and methods that can be used to sew deeper division and ultimately chaos in our Republic and divert America from the real challenges at hand.

    Fortunately, we have a durable democracy, a free press and the willingness of courageous leaders like General Hayden, Michael Morell and John McLaughlin who have demonstrated courage in their willingness to stand tall and publicly to speak up and illuminate why an independent FBI and CIA are so critical to protecting the fabric of our federal law enforcement, justice and intelligence institutions so often abused in government less resilient than our own.