Was It Worth It?
Just hours before the Nunes memo on FBI surveillance pursuant to the Russian collusion investigation was released, former Attorney General and Obama stalwart Eric Holder warned it would damage American intelligence capabilities.
[P]eople must understand what is at stake by release of the bogus, contrived Nunes memo. It uses normally protected material and puts at risk our intell capabilities in order to derail a legitimate criminal investigation. This is unheard of- it is dangerous and it is irresponsible.
When the memo was actually released it superficially had nothing to do with cloak and dagger and much more to do with domestic politics. What it alleged was that "senior FBI officials used a fake dossier paid for by the Democrats to get a court order for electronic surveillance of the Trump campaign." Rep. Paul Gosar, in fact, characterized the alleged actions as an attempted coup. "The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence memorandum on the FBI ... is not just evidence of incompetence but clear and convincing evidence of treason."
If any intelligence assets were compromised, they were placed at risk by the dossier itself. British court documents say that Fusion, an agency working for the Hillary campaign briefed journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN at the end of September 2016. Whether Fusion's press conference tipped off the Russians is unclear even to Glenn Simpson as Newsweek reports.
The House Intelligence Committee published a transcript on Thursday of a behind-closed-doors interview with Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, who shared his concerns that people had been picked off by the Russian government after the explosive claims of a Trump-Russia connection emerged.
When asked if one of his sources was killed, Simpson said, “That’s not my information. I mean, there was a series of episodes where people were arrested or died mysteriously that came shortly after the disclosure of the existence of this information. And I do believe there was a bit of an old-fashioned purge.”
But a press briefing couldn't have helped their sources' operational security.
It should be hard for any American of whatever persuasion to exult in the FBI's weakness on full display. A very important agency, on which the safety of the U.S. and the world significantly depends, has been shown at the very minimum to be vulnerable to bad judgment. Confirmation bias alters what is perceived as a threat. The FBI leadership arguably believed Steele because they wanted to believe him. Why the Fusion GPS dossier itself was not regarded as a deception operation when it's a standard Russian ploy to plant their favored narrative in an organization is a question that ought to be asked and answered.
Bias is dangerous because the feds need to look in places even when they're not sure they'll find anything. They have to play hunches even when they suspect a tip was tainted. They even need to be allowed to make mistakes if, in the main, they get it right. But they must always be honest about the uncertainty in their investigation not only with the judge but most of all to themselves because that's all that stands between human justice and abuse.
In the Wilderness of Mirrors where intelligence operates the facts are rarely certain. The truth is always colored by degrees of doubt, the need to protect sources, the necessity to deceive. No Memo can possibly declassify everything. The only guarantees in the intelligence business are the men themselves. Trusted men are the proxy for what the public cannot see; their judgment the substitute for what we can never know. Are they mentally honest, loyal, possessed of sound judgment?
And the answer to all those questions, apparently, is "who knows?" As David Goldman memorably put it, they've come off like a bunch of clowns. "No foreign intelligence service could learn anything from the House Republicans’ memo except that the FBI retailed the mercenary inventions of a retired British spook and concealed the provenance of its information. Some may consider it dangerous to expose senior officials of America’s counterintelligence service as political hacks and fools. They needn’t worry. America’s adversaries have been well aware of this for a long time."
By contrast, the American public trusted them. Ironically, Eric Holder was right about the memorandum being damaging to U.S. intelligence capabilities -- but not in the obvious way. The Nunes memo hurt the intelligence community not because it revealed any secret codes, hideouts or agent names. It damaged intel because it showed what fools they were.
The government pays telecoms to spy on you. The public lets them do it because they trust the government. A Wired article from a few years back noted that the "Obama administration accused Sprint today of overcharging the government more than $21 million in wiretapping expenses. Sprint, like all the nation's carriers, must comply with the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which requires telcos to be capable of providing government-ordered wiretapping services. The act also allows carriers to recoup "reasonable expenses" associated with those services. They do it because to defend against enemy threats they have to do stuff.
If the public stops trusting them -- that's the damage.
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