Marc Thiessen’s scandalous swipe at the FBI

In his February 5, 2018 opinion piece in the Washington Post, “The FBI’s scandalous attempt to block the Nunes memo”, Marc Thiessen states that it “should not be debatable” that the FBI’s effort to suppress the release of the Nunes memo was “corrupt, undemocratic, and arguably unlawful”.

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Thiessen’s basic argument goes like this: The FBI has no right under any circumstances to try to prevent public disclosure of any government information, and the FBI’s effort to suppress the Nunes memo threatens national security by causing the public to lose trust in and place restrictions on the FISA process.

Thiessen is a well-known political speechwriter who spent five years working with Paul Manafort’s old lobbying firm. When presenting arguments, speechwriters and lobbyists frequently and intentionally omit key facts to shape to their narratives, despite the risk to the underlying truth. For example, whoever wrote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s self-glorifying February 21, 2018 speech at the Communist Party Congress focused solely on positive progress and omitted any mention any troubles China has recently had (e.g., North Korea). Thiessen is no different in his op-ed, and the following key omissions show that his argument itself is scandalous, not the FBI.

Thiessen omits a crucial part of this story: the FBI’s goal was to vet the memo prior to its release in order to spend the time necessary to review the memo and prevent inappropriate and harmful exposure of national security secrets, sources, and methods, and also to prevent public misunderstandings that could lead to threats to national security. Nunes never gave the FBI the time it needed to review the memo prior to release. Thiessen nevertheless mischaracterizes the FBI’s goal as a blatant attempt to suppress the Nunes memo completely, no matter what its contents. This twisting of the facts is used by Thiessen strategically to lead his reader to the conclusion that the FBI is up to no good (a conclusion Thiessen may intend his readers to reach to help President Trump build a public case for fighting back against the Justice Department and sacking special prosecutor Robert Mueller).

Thiessen mentions the FBI’s “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy” but omits to explain the basis of these concerns. The FBI was concerned that release of the memo would set a bad precedent for making government secrets public, including sensitive sources of information and methods of intelligence gathering. Instead Theissen cavalierly assumes that the FBI was merely trying to avoid embarrassment by suppressing the release of information not favorable to the FBI.

To make matters worse, Thiessen rails against “trying to keep this information from the public” but omits to mention that the Nunes memo is specifically designed to keep the public in the dark on certain non-classified information that directly contradicts the memo’s conclusions alleging FBI misconduct. Instead Thiessen champions the idea that the FBI and the Democrats should each publish their own memos. Despite this lofty plea, the fact is that Thiessen omits that Nunes’ committee voted along party lines against releasing the Democrats’ rebuttal memo. Shouldnt’ Thiessen then accuse Nunes’ committee of being “corrupt, undemocratic, and arguably unlawful” for “trying to keep this information from the public”?

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I’m struck by Thiessen’s insistence that “under no circumstances did [the FBI] have the right to try to suppress” the Nunes memo. What if one of the “circumstances” was that national security could be compromised by disclosure of certain information in the Nunes memo? Under that circustance, I should definitely think that the FBI had the right to try to suppress the information. Whether the FBI has the right to suppress is a more honest question than whether it has the right to “try to” suppress. The FBI has a right to research information to see whether it should or should not be suppressed. Thiessen apparently disagrees.

I’m equally struck by Thiessen’s insistence that “the real threat to national security came not from the memo’s release, but from the FBI effort to suppress it.” He states “If the FBI’s actions cause Americans to lose trust in the FISA process, then their elected representatives may impose greater restrictions on it, making it harder for the intelligence community to protect America.” But what if the Nunes memo cause Americans to lose trust in the FISA process?

Perhaps this was precisely what the FBI was trying to avoid by seeking permission to vet the memo prior to release. But in Thiessen’s drive to vilify the FBI, key facts get swept under the rug.