The New York Times had revealed the existence of a “secret cabal within the FBI of a handful of agents…who took it upon themselves to investigate the Trump campaign…,” Talk Radio host Mark Levin declared on Wednesday. His loud message quickly resounded across the “conservative media” universe. However, The New York Times had done no such thing.
This situation merits a closer look. A logical starting point is the definition of “cabal.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, a cabal is a “secret political clique or faction.” That is the measure by which Levin’s description must be evaluated.
The article cited by Levin began, “Within hours of opening an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the summer of 2016, the F.B.I. dispatched a pair of agents to London on a mission so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark.” From that paragraph, it is clear that the FBI opened an investigation. The FBI has specific procedures listed in their “Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide” for opening investigations:
The AGG-Dom authorizes a second level of investigative activity–predicated investigations. Predicated investigations that concern… threats to the national security are subdivided into preliminary investigations and full investigations. Preliminary investigations may be initiated on the basis of any “allegation or information” indicative of possible criminal activity or threats to the national security.
A political campaign’s possible role in facilitating Russian interference in an American election or its seeking benefit from such interference would constitute a legitimate national security threat. Compromised candidates or campaigns would undermine the integrity of the American electoral process. Compromised leaders would undermine American governance by making decisions or pursuing policies that are inconsistent with the national interest. According to the article, the FBI’s investigation was launched to examine the possible existence of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Probing such alleged ties is consistent with the FBI’s counterintelligence responsibilities. It is not a political act.
Was the investigation unauthorized? The article makes no mention that the FBI’s decision to initiate an investigation fell outside its guidelines.
That the sensitive investigation was “so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark” does not mean the same thing as the existence of a “secret” clique. Based on the article’s language, “a handful of officials” were aware of the investigation. They very likely included those who authorized the investigation at the highest level of the Department of Justice and those who were conducting it.
To summarize, the newspaper did not report or imply that a small handful of FBI agents went “rogue” in violation of FBI guidelines to initiate an unauthorized investigation without the knowledge of appropriate senior officials for political purposes. Therefore, by definition, there was no cabal.
This latest example of disinformation reinforces the importance of information literacy. Readers, viewers, and listeners should be careful to evaluate the credibility of the information they receive. That means analyzing both the quality of the content and the source’s possible bias. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) information literacy framework for journalists advises that one should examine and compare information from the sources “to evaluate reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and bias.”
Step 1: Compare a narrative with the underlying source: Is the narrative accurate?
NYT Article: “Within hours of opening an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia… the F.B.I. dispatched a pair of agents to London on a mission so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark.”
Levin: A “secret cabal within the FBI of a handful of agents…who took it upon themselves to investigate the Trump campaign.”
The two accounts are irreconcilable. A “secretive mission” is not the same thing as a secret group. An opened investigation is not the same thing as an unauthorized action of a few agents.
So, how could Levin have gone so wrong?
Step 2: Look for bias: What does one know about the host who described the article?
Levin is not a dispassionate journalist who simply reports the facts. He is not an investigative reporter who synthesizes evidence and then informed judgments. He is a Talk Radio host who engages in partisan advocacy.
Step 3: Would a partisan end be served from misinterpreting the article’s content?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has moved into its second year. A number of persons, including Trump campaign associates and appointees, have been indicted, convicted, or pleaded guilty. The Special Counsel has identified issues over which he would like to question the President. There is growing partisan pressure to shield the President from any potential outcomes that might lead to impeachment. Such pressure has nourished a growing partisan effort to discredit the Intelligence Community, Department of Justice, FBI, and their personnel to undermine confidence in the investigation or stop it altogether. Recasting the article as an attack on the FBI’s investigation advances that partisan effort.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, partisan efforts to undermine the investigation or public trust in its findings will very likely intensify. Understanding what is happening is essential for American citizens to reach decisions based on accurate information.
Information literacy won’t influence the opinions of those who have adopted partisan or ideological positions as articles of faith. Reason, evidence, and logic are powerless under such circumstances. Information literacy will benefit objective readers, listeners, and viewers who seek the truth. The long-term viability of the nation’s republican government may well count on that latter group.