Barbara Streisand in May 2003 sicced her lawyers on a photographer whose shots of the California coastline, intended to document erosion, had captured Streisand’s seaside Malibu mansion. Streisand demanded the image come down off the Internet.
The photograph had only been downloaded six times, twice by Streisand’s lawyers, until the lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court became public. You can guess what happened then. Hundreds of thousands of Internet users downloaded, published, and shared it.
The “Streisand Effect” occurs when efforts to keep something from the public result in massively greater public attention. That’s what we’re witnessing with the memo from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Nunes’s memo would have garnered some notice, for two reasons. First, it alleges surveillance practices that would surprise and should unnerve most members of the public. Second, it was intended as another salvo in the high-drama investigation, that is so far low in substance, into alleged Trump campaign collusion with Russian intelligence.
But the memo took on extra importance in the public imagination because congressional Democrats and the FBI fought like crazy to prevent its release. Most people probably heard of the memo only after #ReleaseTheMemo became a rallying cry among House Republicans and Trump’s Twitter army. So when the memo came out Friday midday, it swallowed the airwaves, took over Twitter, and even broke our own website.
There is explosive stuff in the memo, but also less than we were led to believe. Led to believe, that is, by Democrats. Their desperate, almost manic, efforts to deep-six the memo was supposedly because its release would compromise national security. Then, it was published, and it was clear that such a claim was ludicrous. It seems impossible that national security could be compromised by the contents. So, if the Democrats' determination to keep it under wraps cannot be justified by national security concerns, their anxiety for secrecy must have been based on something else.
What was that? It can only have been that the memo detailed what appears to be serious abuse and probably bungling by the FBI in the way it has conducted the investigation into the Trump-Russia affair. That is bad news for the Dem-Resistance movement, which aches for the story of collusion to be true.
The memo shows that at least the House Intelligence Committee majority has concluded that the FBI obtained a FISA court warrant to snoop on a Republican campaign aide by leveraging unconfirmed information that, it failed to disclose, was Democratic Party opposition research prepared by a man who admitted he passionately wanted to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. If such "research" counts as probable cause for spying on Americans, then our surveillance state is as out of control as its harshest critics say it is.
But here’s where the memo falls short. We don’t know for a fact that the FISA court relied on the dossier for its warrant. What we know is that Nunes says as much, and that Nunes says FBI Director Christopher Wray said information in the dossier was necessary for the FBI’s eavesdropping application.
In short, the memo is a Republican interpretation of the intelligence. It contains an eye-opening claim, but it isn't proof. In journalism, some editors will encourage their writers, “Show, don’t tell.” That is, give the reader evidence of a fact rather than simply stating it. Nunes’ memo is all tell and no show.
Transparency is a virtue on sensitive national security and civil rights matters such as what grounds our government needs in order to spy on us.
The Intelligence Committee and the administration should publicize the original sources to the greatest extent possible. Nunes characterizes what Wray said? Let’s see what Wray said. Nunes characterizes the FISA application? Publish as much of that as possible.
If the FBI wants to defend its prerogative to conduct this sort of surveillance, it should make the case as openly and publicly as possible.
If Democrats are worried about this debate distracting from the investigation of the Trump campaign, they should take a lesson from Barbra Streisand and stop drawing attention to things by trying to hide them.