Memos as records: scripta manent

write downA memo (abbreviation of the word memorandum, ‘that which must be remembered’ in Latin), according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘a usually brief written message from one person or department in an organization, company, etc., to another’.

This past week, however, a different kind of memo made headlines in the US: the recently fired FBI director, J. Comey, is thought to have documented in writing and with detail discussions he had with the American president, D. Trump, regarding a federal investigation Comey was conducting into a former national security adviser. His account of the discussions is also dubbed a memo and is reportedly a common practice among law-enforcement employees: the conversations that are not recorded (and not all of them are) are subsequently drafted into a text, since some of the particulars of discussions and their exact wording is of crucial significance on how events unfold or are interpreted.

This information came from an article in the New York Times, which calls the practice ‘product of a culture of note-keeping’. The article adds: ‘Mr. Comey’s memos were not the standard forms that F.B.I. agents use to summarize the facts of interviews they conduct, called FD-302s, or 302s in bureau parlance. They were a more informal way to document not just the facts of an interaction but also personal impressions and analysis to help put those facts into context.’

The Comey memo seems therefore to be an unclassified, unofficial document, which probably means it has no official register number and does not constitute public record. And how did we, the public, then, found out about its existence? Apparently, Mr. Comey himself divulged this piece of information: ‘Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.’ We have no information on how this memo was drafted, but a memo by an earlier FBI director featuring in the news in 2007 was reported as ‘typewritten’.

It is probable that the advertised existence of the memo prompted the US Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate independently the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russian officials, since the appointment came one day after the memo was made known.

tapesIt seems also that we will be seeing a clash between traditional note-keeping and modern recordings, since the US president implied in a rather puzzling tweet last week that he had ‘tapes’ of his conversations with Mr. Comey. The special counsel has the authority to get hold of all this information (memos, tapes etc.), so we will probably find out shortly what was actually discussed. It is clear, however, that if this tweet was meant to serve as a warning against Mr. Comey revealing information, it failed, since he chose to publicize his memo nonetheless.

The message of the week is something in the order of ‘Write it, people, or it didn’t happen!’

PS. Here’s an excerpt of what the New Yorker thinks it’s in Mr. Comey’s memos: ‘Trump tried to give me a vase of flowers with a planted microphone—fifth time this month. He might have gotten away with it if the arrangement hadn’t just been a single microphone sticking out of a vase.’