As a Catholic schoolboy in the 1960s, I was terrified by my teachers' tales of the Third Secret of Fatima, the last of three messages communicated by an apparition of the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese children in 1917. Unlike the first two "secrets," the third message remained unsealed during my childhood (one of my high school teachers quipped that it contained the bill for the Last Supper), but speculation tended toward the apocalyptic.
I was reminded of the Third Secret by the excitement generated in some Republican (and apparently Russian) circles by a memo drawn up by majority staffers on the House Intelligence Committee working with the panel's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).
Nunes is the international man of mystery who last year popped up at the White House to brief President Trump about sensational information he had obtained about allegedly improper "unmasking" of members of the Trump transition team whose names appeared in intelligence intercepts. Later it was reported that the source of his information was … someone at the White House. (The allegation of improper unmasking was never proved.)
The four-page document that has inspired the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo purports to establish misconduct by the FBI and Justice Department and a bias against the Trump campaign. The New York Times reported that the document specifically alleges that an application for a warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a Trump campaign advisor, relied on information from former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Steele is the author of the infamous "dossier" about alleged ties between Trump and Russia that was paid for indirectly by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The idea that Democratic opposition research played a role in the genesis of the investigation of possible Trump-Russia collusion is a key part of the narrative being pushed by the president's defenders — an argument less easily dismissed than the president's absurd assertion that former President Obama "tapp[ed] my phones during the very sacred election process." (Of course, the fact that Steele's research might have been part of the basis for a court order doesn't mean that other matters weren't cited in the application to the court.)
But back to the memo and its traumatizing effect on Republicans who have read it.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) says the memo contains "some of the most alarming things I've ever read, and every single American citizen should be able to read that material as soon as possible." "Jaw-dropping!" pronounced Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's lawyers, said on his radio show that it appears the memo reveals corruption that's "breathtaking in scope."
Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, not surprisingly, don't find the document that big a deal. In a joint statement, they denounced it as a "misleading set of talking points" and questioned Republicans' call for public release of the document. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking member, announced that Democrats had drafted their own memo, "setting out the relevant facts and exposing the misleading character of the Republicans' document so that members of the House are not left with an erroneous impression of the dedicated professionals at the FBI and the DOJ."
Saying that it appeared Republicans were seeking to make their "spin memo" public, Schiff added: "We would strongly urge against this course, but would have to insist that our memorandum be likewise made public so that the entire nation is not then misled."
On Wednesday, the Justice Department asked Nunes, reasonably, for an opportunity to review the memo before it was released publicly. The Democrats' memo should be subjected to the same screening. If redactions are necessary in either document to protect sources and methods or the integrity of a criminal investigation, they should be made.
With that proviso, #ReleaseTheMemos — both of them.
The Third Secret of Fatima was eventually released (in 2000, when Pope John Paul II "declassified" it) and it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. It depicted a dreamlike scene involving an angel with a flaming sword in his left hand and the death of a "bishop dressed in white" at the foot of a cross. Some interpreted this as a prophecy of the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul, but the Vatican discouraged such explanations. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, said "no great mystery" was revealed in the Third Secret.
The same will probably prove true of the document House Republicans claim to find so terrible.
4:25 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect the Justice Department's letter to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).