Opinion: Exile from the land of reason

It would seem reasonable, in a reasonable world.

If the FBI and Justice Department have serious concerns about the contents of a classified memo drafted by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, it would seem reasonable for those agencies to request changes in the memo, and reasonable for the Democrats to address those concerns.

The problem is that Washington in the era of Trump is not a reasonable place, where reasonable rules apply. It has devolved into a madhouse.

In that madhouse, House Republicans can draft a memo based on classified material that alleges serious official wrongdoing in the investigation into Russian electoral meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. They can make all kinds of outlandish claims about what the memo means, including claims that the wrongdoing is so severe that the entire investigation must be abandoned.

That memo -- the Republican one -- gets released, unchanged, to the American public. It gets released even though the Department of Justice objected strenuously, in public and in private, calling the memo “extraordinarily reckless.” It gets released over the strident objections of the FBI as well, which warns that it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

Despite that unambiguous language, it gets released by President Trump because he saw political gain in its release. We know that was his motive because he told us so, bragging that with the memo’s release, he had somehow been vindicated. (Nobody of any intelligence who read the memo would make such a statement, but that’s what Trump had heard on Fox so that’s what Trump believes).

So two memos, both containing classified material, both inspiring strong objections from the law enforcement and intelligence communities. By the rules of reason, neither should have been made public. By the rules of Trump-era Washington ... well, there aren’t any rules in Trump-era Washington, so one memo is released for partisan advantage, and one is kept secret for partisan advantage.

After the release of what is now known as the Nunes memo, a lot of Americans wondered what all the fuss had been about, because the amount of classified material that it contained seemed pretty minor. It publicly “unmasked” a U.S. citizen, Carter Page, and confirmed that a secret FISA court had judged Page a probable Russian spy. It contained information about how and when the Russia investigation began, and when wiretaps on Page were first approved. These are things that might be useful for those attempting to evade investigators, but their release does not appear to directly threaten national security.

But the real fear of government officials was what came next. In the shorter term, the FBI and Justice Department understood that with release of the Nunes memo, pressure would grow for additional releases of classified material, as Democrats and others attempted to fight back and try to correct “the material omissions of fact” that the FBI had warned against. That fear is now being realized.

In the longer term, and more importantly, the FBI and others in the intelligence community knew that an enormous taboo was being broken, with consequences that we can still only imagine. Because of federal law, congressional rules and longstanding political norms, American politicians have not treated classified material as an ammo depot to be gleefully raided for use in partisan warfare. That material was off-limits. Yes, there have been occasional leaks -- there will always be leaks. However, those leaks were rare and treated as breaches, and they were generally driven by geniune policy differences, not by a desire for crass partisan gain.

That’s a very different thing than watching the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, acting in his official capacity, work in cahoots with a president to weaponize classified material and use it in an attempt to discredit those investigating that same president. Once you do that, once that becomes acceptable behavior, we have exiled ourselves from the land of “reasonable” and it’s hard to see a path that takes us back there.