In 1930, Professor Edward G. Boring, the first historian of modern psychology, wrote a paper that called attention to the concept of the ambiguous illusion — “My Wife and My Mother-In-Law.”
As the viewer looks at the illusion, what once appears to be a young woman subtly transforms into an elderly one. Boring used the drawing to highlight perceptual ambiguity, where our perception of a figure remains stable until we focus on a different region or contour. The iconic image later become known as a “Boring figure.”
On Friday, after declassification and clearance from the White House, California Republican Devin Nunes, who is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), dropped a “Boring figure” into our laps — the memo.
Once released, Democrats and Republicans made their respective cases that what we were witnessing was a “wife” and … a “mother-in-law.”
So, just how can one three-and-a-half-page document generate two disparate interpretations?
Let’s start with the fact that the Trump presidency has divided our nation in ways that, as a military historian, I can really only equate to the mid-19th century when our country was driven by divisive issues that eventually led to a bloody civil war.
At least, back then, one side was righteously fighting to keep the Union intact and to free the slaves. Today, as #Resistance collides with #MAGA, the lines can be blurred.
And in distilling the true impact of the memo, good and decent folks can assess its importance entirely differently. For example, Jonathan Turley and Jeffrey Toobin — both considered scholarly legal analysts — came down on opposite sides on this one.
Turley sees the memo as damning for both the Democrats and the FBI. Toobin, however, referred to it as “a dark day in American history,” and described what Nunes had accomplished with its release as “an embarrassment to the United States Congress.”
So, what the hell is it — a damned “wife” or “mother-in-law”?
Look, is it possible that it’s both? And with that, husbands around the world are cringing and cursing me. But allow me to answer my own question: Yes, it can be both — a classic example of perceptual ambiguity.
And, as often occurs, both sides make valid points and then invalidate their arguments by cravenly overplaying their hands.
This is accomplished by engaging in “spin,” and ignoring facts that are harmful to their own argument or position. When both sides react with moral outrage at the opposing party’s prospects, though, we end up nowhere.
Allow me to provide some examples to make sense of all this:
In the run-up to the memo’s release, two proponents of the document, Representatives Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Steve King (R-IA), made some statements that defy credulity.
Gowdy claimed that the memo’s release would be “embarrassing” to Minority Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA). And King claimed that the memo highlighted abuses of power that ran “deeper than Watergate.”
In the end, the memo — while highlighting some troubling items that were already in the public domain — was really just a tempest in a teapot.
Nunes, Gowdy and King overplayed a winning hand that contained real and tangible instances of inappropriate conduct by senior executives at FBI headquarters. The underwhelming document also distractingly buried the lede — which was a fair and reasonable accounting of the evidence used in a FISA application that resulted in monitoring of Trump campaign associates.
But the Democrats engaged in their own embarrassing conduct by crying wolf prior to the memo’s release.
Schiff and the other Democrats made hyperbolic insinuations that Nunes’ impending memo release would result in the street executions of FBI sources, sensitive surveillance methods disclosed to the world and condemnation from our allies in the intelligence-sharing community.
Humbly speaking, now having read it in its entirety: the memo can’t be considered the proverbial “smoking gun,” and, so far, it has not resulted in irreparable damage to our intelligence institutions. (Some may argue my assessment is too premature. I, however, believe it might just age as well as a fine Bordeaux.)
The memo also didn’t reveal sources and methods — the Democrats’ favorite pre-release talking point warning.
I have long maintained there needs to be a vigorous housecleaning on the seventh floor at headquarters. But the memo contained nothing all that damning — other than a disputed claim by the GOP that Andrew McCabe testified in a closed-door committee session that absent the dossier’s inclusion, the FISA application effort would never have been pursued. Democrats vehemently deny that McCabe stated that.
And maybe the real potential embarrassment will arrive by way of the upcoming Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report. It will certainly contain assessments of Loretta Lynch’s encounter with Bill Clinton on the Phoenix tarmac, James Comey’s decision to speak in the July 2016 press conference on the email investigation and the Peter Strzok-Lisa Page text exchanges.
That said, this whole episode should serve as a cautionary tale for future generations of FBI executives. Democrats and Republicans can have differing opinions, but they should be careful not to let their partisan views lead them into a “Boring figure” situation, where each side exaggerates reality — to the detriment of the American people.