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'Memogate' Presents Rare Opportunity to Hold Secretive Institutions Accountable

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

These pathetic dueling memos are symptomatic of a major bug in the system. Want to convince us? Show us the actual receipts, not your opinions of them.

The House Intelligence Committee was tasked with examining the FBI's handling of the probe into potential interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential election. The "Nunes memo" basically accused the FBI of politicizing its investigation by citing $160,000 worth of political opposition research into then-candidate Trump by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and a company called Fusion GPS -- ultimately paid for by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee -- in its application for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to authorize the wiretapping of a member of the Trump campaign team. (The FISA court operates in total secrecy and authorizes the surveillance of individuals suspected by law enforcement of having ties to foreign intelligence.)

The individual in question is Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who had already left Team Trump by the time the FISA court approved the wiretap.

The House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, has said that the FBI was above board in disclosing the political motivations behind the dodgy Steele dossier in its application to the FISA court. The problem is that all of these partisan players have their own agendas, and we'll never really know the truth unless we can see for ourselves the FBI's application and the court decision granting the FBI permission to spy. Both are undoubtedly classified, just as the dueling memos were prior to their release.

Being able to see the FISA application without any partisan filters might shed light on why Page was considered worthy of wiretapping in an investigation into purported collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign when Page had already left the campaign -- and for an entire year after he had left. This makes little sense, unless perhaps the FBI was using him as a mole, unwittingly or not.

An examination of the application would also give us a clearer answer as to whether the evidence on which the FBI based its request to spy on an American citizen was more than just a dossier ordered by Clinton and the DNC, and a Yahoo News story that was based on information from the dossier's author, as Nunes claims. Such circular "proof" smacks of "parallel construction" -- law enforcement agencies disguising where their information is coming from in order to get what they want from a court without raising questions about constitutionality. (A discredited dossier and an article fueled by information from the dossier's author would be pretty thin gruel on which to base an application to wiretap an American citizen.)

It's dismaying to see the system become so politicized that the public can only assess the legitimacy of its democratic processes and institutions by relying on politically driven commentaries. This gives credence to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's argument that the publication of raw government data or documents can help citizens prevent the erosion of democracy.

So let's also open up the kimono of the secretive FISA court in this case. Let us all see the basis on which an American court repeatedly deemed one of its citizens worthy of wiretapping (via four 90-day authorizations). Let's see exactly how the applications were tied to the investigation of supposed Russian interference in the U.S. election, and what evidence the FBI presented in support of these requests.

We'll no doubt be told that such transparency is a threat to the nation's security, since the disclosure of sources and methods could threaten any future investigations. But we have to ask ourselves if democracy is better served in the long term by such secrecy -- particularly at a time when confidence in democracy has been so badly shaken -- or by taking advantage of this rare public controversy over a secret process to determine whether justice is truly being done.

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