Show Us the Sources and Methods

“We have to protect sources and methods!” This claim has been deployed repeatedly by those who want to impede the efforts of President Trump and his supporters in Congress to pry the lid off the origins of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign for supposed “Russian collusion.” As I argue at The Hill, while this principle—protection of intelligence and law enforcement sources and methods—is generally sound, its use in the present case is weak, because the public interest in knowing all there is to know about the truth of the “Russian collusion” allegation is so strong.

The claim that the president of the United States is the tool of a foreign government is so damaging to the public’s trust in its governing institutions, strikes so radically at the people’s belief in their capacity for self-government, that protection of sources and methods could not be more important than providing all information the public needs to judge whether this remarkable claim is, in fact, true.

The case for transparency grows stronger, and the case for concealing sources and methods grows correspondingly weaker, if we also consider the other kinds of bad public conduct that might be at work in the “Russian collusion” saga.

Consider, in the first place, the president’s most determined detractors. For a year and a half they have strenuously propounded the idea that he is guilty of some kind of improper relationship with Russia. If this claim is true, or if plausible grounds existed for believing it, then the detractors have only been doing their duty to the public, warning them of a grave danger to the integrity of our democracy.

If the claim is not true, however, or if it is based on weak evidence or no evidence, things appear in a different light. In that case, the president’s enemies themselves would be guilty either of bad judgment or ill-will. That is, they may have been led to press the charge of Russian collusion out of ill-founded hysteria; or, worse, they may have pressed the charge cynically, hoping to use it to damage the president politically whether or not it was supported by credible evidence. In the latter case, they would truly be scoundrels of the worst kind—willing to smear the president of the United States and undermine the public’s confidence in the government for merely partisan purposes.

Since some of the president’s political enemies themselves hold high political office, it is important that the people have all the information needed to judge their political conduct.

Were these detractors doing their duty to the public by warning them of a credible threat to our democracy posed by the president himself? Were they over-reacting to mere possibilities without having really taken care to confirm the truth of the matter? Or were they cynically and dangerously trifling with the public’s trust in its own government in order to score what they thought were easy political points? Voters need to be able to assess these possibilities intelligently, and the only way for them to do so is to bring to light the evidence—and the sources of the evidence—from which the claims of “Russian collusion” originated.

Moreover, in addition to “Russiagate” we now have “Spygate.” President Trump has not only defended himself against charges of “Russian collusion” he has also launched a counterattack, claiming that the counterintelligence investigation of his campaign was begun without sufficient justification, that it was all along an excuse for some high ranking people in the Obama Administration to engage in political espionage against a presidential candidate of whom they disapproved.

If this claim is true—if the nation’s security and intelligence services were weaponized against a political campaign—then there was a grave abuse of power that threatens to undermine the integrity of our democracy. Representative self-government requires free and fair elections. But we can’t have free and fair elections if the incumbent administration feels free to use its vast law enforcement and intelligence assets to spy on, and to create a false impression of the corruption of, its political rivals. If this happened, then our country of laws is heading toward becoming a banana republic, and the people need to know it, so they can support the steps necessary to preserve the integrity of our institutions.

If, on the other hand, the claim is not true, or if it is based on flimsy evidence, then President Trump is himself guilty of dangerous recklessness or unacceptable political cynicism. In that case, he is either making the charge out of anger and frustration over what he perceives to be the unfairness of the investigation, or he is making it on the basis of a rational but dishonest calculation that it is the best way to defend himself—even at the cost of making Americans distrust their federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Here the president is in a position analogous to that of the most vociferous promoters of the “Russian collusion” story. He is either warning the country of a very deep threat to our institutions, or he is himself irresponsibly creating the perception of such a threat without a public justification for doing so. Once again, the only way for the people to judge these matters is for them to see the evidence that was used to start and continue the investigation into the Trump campaign and to know the credibility of the sources from which that evidence came.

If there was ever a time for transparency, this is it. Sources and methods should not be revealed lightly, and if it is necessary to reveal them steps should be taken to minimize the damage from disclosure. But the need to conceal them cannot outweigh the need of the people to discern the truth of the serious allegations that are now dominating our politics.

Photo credit:  Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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