The Nunes Memo, “Bias,” and the Skills of the Historian
tags: Trump,Nunes memo,Carter Page
Mark Byrnes is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
It struck me while reading the instantly infamous Nunes memo that we’d 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 source information.
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.
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 they 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 on 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 incredibly flawed assertions in the Nunes memo. People who don’t understand anything about law or evidence dismiss the dossier as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” but in fact that phrase refers to evidence that is obtained illegally. It has 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.
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