How might a historian interpret the now-famous Nunes memo?
Mark Byrnes, chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, breaks it down for us. Here is a taste of his History News Network piece: “The Nunes Memo: ‘Bias,’ and the Skills of the Historian“:
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.