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The Briefing: #ReleasetheNothingburger – and then some

WASHINGTON – The term "nothingburger" is on its way to becoming even more of a cliché, and it's all the fault of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California.

According to the Knower of All Things – the Nexis news retrieval service – the term "nothingburger" has been used in the same news story as the name "Nunes" 48 times in the past month. And no wonder.

The political nation waited breathlessly for Nunes' release of a classified memo on supposed FBI misbehavior in its investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. And then when it was released early this month, it said, well, almost nothing.

The memo alleged that the FBI erred in asking for court approval to investigate a former Trump campaign aide named Carter Page and his supposed tie to the Russians, in that the investigative agency never said it suspected Page because of information dug up by a private investigator paid by Democrats.

That's it?

If that's the best Nunes can come up with, it puts his memo firmly in the pantheon of Washington nothingburgers, right up there with President Obama's 2013 trip to Buffalo to promise lower college costs (which kept rising through this year) and, of course, Jeb!

Some Republicans – including President Trump – portrayed the Nunes memo as evidence that the FBI is biased and that the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 is therefore tainted. But in fact, the Nunes memo deals with just one very narrow issue in a sprawling investigation that has already resulted in 19 indictments and guilty pleas  – which indicates the special counsel's probe is definitely a somethingburger.

But the very emptiness of the Nunes memo raises an important question:

Why was the memo classified in the first place?

The answer, sadly, is that in Washington, classification is like kudzu. It won't stop growing.

The New York Times, the Federation of American Scientists and others have warned for years that all sorts of seemingly routine government information remains classified, partly because thousands of government employees have the power to label information secret.

On this fact there seems to be some bipartisan agreement. On the right, the National Review's David French noted that there appears to be nothing in the Nunes memo that could remotely endanger the nation. And Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, worried that the #releasethememo moment "perverts legitimate concerns about overclassification and government surveillance that civil liberties advocates have fought so hard to bring to light."

Why the big secret? The answer is simple: Government officials prefer big secrets. The less the public knows, the more power government has.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee dillydallied before finally releasing the redacted Democratic response to the Nunes memo. Their reason? Predictably, they said it included classified secrets.

The committee finally dribbled out the Democratic memo Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday, when not so many people would notice, and guess what? It contradicted the Republican memo, saying the GOP unfairly criticized the FBI's motives in investigating Page, whom agents had been watching long before the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

That's pretty much it.

Was it worth the wait? Only in that it gave the other side of a very political story that's a sideshow to the big show: special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Otherwise, the Democratic memo is yet another nothingburger.

Then again, in this hyper-partisan age when neither side can be fully trusted, two nothingburgers are at least somewhat more satisfying than just one.

Happening today

President Trump meets with several governors, then has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt ... Congress returns from a weeklong recess; for the Senate, that means gathering for the annual reading of President Washington's 1796 Farewell Address, and for the House, it means a series of voice votes on noncontroversial measures ... The Supreme Court releases orders and hears arguments in two arcane cases: One on whether public sector agency fee arrangements should be declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment, and another on whether, as Ohio claims, American Express has been engaged in uncompetitive practices ... The National Governors Association ends its winter meeting with a roundtable discussion of the opioid crisis.

Good reads

The Washington Post notes that so far, congressional leaders are meeting calls for additional gun control with silence ... Teen Vogue, of all publications, takes on an uncomfortable truth: that black teens have been calling for gun control for years, to little notice ... Associated Press documents the Trump administration's weakening of transportation safety rules ... Axios notes that President Trump is pushing his personal pilot to be head of the Federal Aviation Administration ... And the New York Daily News tells us that New York Republican Chairman Ed Cox could be in trouble.

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