BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Friday, as we were finishing this hour, deadlines bearing down, the House Intelligence Committee released the much-anticipated, I could say infamous, memo by Chairman Devin Nunes, who had to recuse himself from his committee’s Russia investigation because of improper contacts with the White House right from the start. Anyway, if you listen to the show, you probably know the news and you already know the broad outlines of the Republican case, which I’ll put in the form of a question: If, that is if, and it’s hotly disputed, the Steele dossier written by that British spy, was the sole piece of evidence used to obtain a warrant from the secret FISA court to surveil Trump advisor Carter Page, does that expose an FBI bias against Trump that invalidates the entire Russia investigation? In other words --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Their central point is that this is fruit from a poison tree, essentially that because this dossier was prepared by a political operative, by somebody who was being paid by a political organization, the DNC and Hillary Clinton, that it should never have been used, that it should never have been granted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Big news, and yet, just another iteration of the overarching message of the Trump administration, question the integrity of the questioners, disable the engines of accountability, the FBI, the courts and the media, because they do not serve America.
BOB GARFIELD: The FBI itself cautioned against the memo’s release, either because it’s afraid its conspiracy has been exposed or because the memo is a tissue of half-truths risking exposure of intelligence secrets for naked partisan purposes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The FBI issuing a rare public warning expressing grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, despite the warning, on Monday, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee voted to release the Nunes memo, employing a never-before-used provision known as Rule X that allows the Committee to selectively disclose classified information, quote, “after a determination by the Select Committee that the public interest would be served by such a disclosure.” The selective disclosure does not include any of the underlying information that went into the memo, nor does it include the Democratic counter memo. House Speaker Paul Ryan says it will, once it's cleared by intelligence agencies, and once the Nunes memo lands without a substantive challenge, overall, not exactly a win for transparency.
Steven Aftergood is the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Steve, welcome back to the show.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: The provision that Nunes is employing here has actually existed for some while but has never been used before. How can it be that a congressional committee can release classified material?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, it can be because they say they can. You know, this is a provision that originated in the conflict during the 1970s over congressional access to classified information that led to the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. And as part of their founding rules, each committee said that they reserve the right under certain circumstances to disclose classified information if they believe it is in the public interest.
BOB GARFIELD: Reserved but never, ‘til now, invoked, even though there were a couple times in recent history when there seemed to be good cause to do that. I’m thinking about the Torture Report and also the story of alleged Saudi involvement in 9/11.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: That’s right. There were at least a couple of episodes where members of Congress went up to the line and said, we’re thinking about this, and I think that even that suggestion that they might invoke this provision may have had an effect in the sense that it conveyed to Executive Branch agencies that Congress was serious and that they had better declassify this material so as to dissuade Congress from releasing it on its own.
You know, just about everybody you talk to, including intelligence agency leaders, will admit that there is a system-wide problem of over classification, that too much material is unnecessarily restricted. And so, here Congress is sitting on this powerful tool that they could use to change the equation and they’ve never used it.
BOB GARFIELD: They’ve walked up to the line and yet never crossed it. Why, do you suppose?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: I think the concern is twofold. One is there has been some uncertainty in the minds of Congress about whether they are accurately assessing the national security risk involved in disclosure. They don't really want the responsibility of making a mistake. And the other concern is that if they, nevertheless, went ahead and released material on their own initiative, they might jeopardize the comity on which the oversight process depends. That is, they require the cooperation, if not the goodwill, of the Executive Branch in order to do their oversight function, and if they suddenly said, you know, what we’re gonna break your rules and do what we think we should do, that kind of cooperation would be jeopardized in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: What are we to make of the House Committee's efforts here? Is it a blow against over classification or is it something different altogether?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: What’s really interesting here is that Chairman Nunes has sort of done of a bit of jujitsu on all of us. He’s basically said, I am for transparency, I am the one who is agitating for greater disclosure, and if those hardliners in the Executive Branch won't release this memo I’ve written, then, by Jove, we’re gonna do it ourselves. So he has sort of flipped the script in a way that makes him and his Committee the heroes of disclosure. But that only is true if you look at it on the surface and just for a second.
If you scratch below a little bit, you see that he is also in the business of suppressing information, specifically, the critical views that were articulated by his Democratic colleagues, and he is also not proposing to release the underlying records that are the basis for the memo but only his interpretation of what they say. So, as an act of transparency, it is a very minimal gesture that is loaded with lots of unwelcome baggage.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it portend for the future and the conduct of future intelligence committees as we get into an ever-more partisan and hostile environment on Capitol Hill?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Yeah. I think part of it depends on how the rest of Congress responds to this episode. I think we're looking for leadership, especially from House and Senate Republicans, who could say, wait a minute, this is not what we call intelligence oversight and this is not the direction for the future. If they remain silent, if they say, well, this is business as usual, then it will become business as usual. This will become the new norm and we will have lost something valuable.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have this weird sense of being, you know, shot with your own gun here because [LAUGHS] you have been agitating for transparency forever for all of the right reasons about the relationship between the government and the electorate, and here comes some hyper transparency, perhaps for the worst reasons, at perhaps the worst time?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, even those of us who are transparency advocates are realizing that we have to be more sophisticated about what we believe and what we advocate. That means that not all disclosure is good, not all secrecy is bad. You know, you can't be dogmatic about this. You need to take circumstances into account. It's not only secrecy that can be used to manipulate the public record. Disclosure can also be used to alter people's perceptions in a misleading way, especially when the disclosure is selective.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve, it's always a pleasure. Thank you very much.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven Aftergood is the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, where he writes the blog Secrecy News.