[This post was originally published on HNN.
It struck me while reading the instantly infamous Nunes memo
that we’d all be better off if we were all trained as historians.
OK, I already thought that. Maybe it is just because I have
been working on the syllabus for my historical research methods class, but the
memo and the knee-jerk reactions to it both prove to me once again how
important it is to have the historian’s understanding of how to use primary
The entire “argument” (such as it is) depends on the idea
that a FISA warrant based—to any extent—on the so-called Steele dossier is
inherently tainted, because the research done by the author, former British
intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was paid for at some point by Democrats.
Since the warrant targeted Carter Page, who had been part of the Trump
campaign, the motive of the funders (not the researcher, it bears noting) to
get “dirt” on Trump somehow discredits everything Steele found.
The memo contains not a single argument that the evidence
used to obtain the warrant against Carter Page was actually false—only that it
is somehow untrustworthy due to the alleged motive behind the research that
produced the evidence.
In history, we deal with this problem all the time. We
uncover evidence in primary sources, and must judge its credibility. Do we have
reason to believe that the person who produced the evidence might have an
agenda that should cause us to doubt the veracity of the evidence? What do we
do if the answer to that question is “yes,” or even “maybe”?
I do a primary source exercise in my methods class that does
just this: presents the students with conflicting primary source accounts of an
event. I then explain why the people who produced the evidence might have
self-serving reasons for portraying the event in a particular light.
Most students, when first faced with this dilemma,
immediately say “bias!” and dismiss the evidence as worthless. That is the
reaction the Nunes memo seems intended to produce among the general public.
But that is not how the historian reacts. Yes, the source of
the evidence may have some bias. That does not, however, by itself mean that
the information is false. It does mean that when weighing its validity, the
historian must look for other, independent, corroborating evidence before trusting
It seems likely that is what the officials who used the
Steele dossier to obtain the FISA warrant did: they compared what Steele wrote
to other information they had about Carter Page to see if it lined up.
People defending Nunes are pointing to this line in the memo
as evidence that the allegedly flawed evidence from the dossier was used to unfairly target
Page for surveillance: “Deputy Director McCabe testified before the committee
in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the
FISC without the Steele dossier information.”
While there is some dispute about whether this is an
accurate characterization of McCabe’s testimony, it is hardly a smoking gun
that proves the warrant had no factual, evidentiary basis.
Let’s take the memo’s assertion about McCabe’s testimony at
face value and assume it is completely accurate. If, as seems likely given
other reporting on Page
, the intelligence community had other, independently-sourced
evidence causing them to suspect Page of suspicious contacts with Russian
intelligence, then Steele’s information may have been the corroboration they
needed to move forward with the warrant. Thus, there would not have been a
warrant without it.
But the logic of that also works the other way
: if all
had was the Steele dossier information—without corroboration—then there also would
be no warrant. Unless McCabe said that the warrant request was based solely
the Steele information, this actually shows that the information in the dossier
had corroboration that legitimately outweighed any potential taint due to the
funding source of Steele’s research. It shows that the charge that the FBI
failed to take into account any potential political bias is false. And then the
whole flimsy assertion behind the memo falls apart completely.
If you’ve been trained in evaluating evidence, this way of
thinking comes naturally. The uninformed, however, fall for the
flawed assertions in the Nunes memo. People who don’t understand
law or evidence dismiss the dossier as the “fruit of the poisonous
in fact that phrase refers to evidence that is obtained illegally. It
nothing to do with potential bias. The charge is not that Steele's
evidence was obtained illegally, but that it is was somehow "biased" and
thus untrustworthy. Every legal case, like every historical
case, involves judging the trustworthiness of evidence. Yes, you need to
consider from whence the evidence comes. But you do not dismiss it out
of hand just because there might be some whiff of “bias” from the source
of the information.
That’s a skill that historical training imparts. The inability of a large number of Americans—including ostensibly
well-educated ones—to understand that shows how much we suffer from our historical illiteracy.