Under the law. God's law, as well as man's.
Martin Luther explained the commandment against bearing false witness this way: "We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything." Fair enough. But neither the American legal tradition nor the Eighth Commandment requires us when a grave accusation is made against a public figure which involves factual matters, that we forego disproving or verifying it. This is especially true when a matter of national security is involved.
Here is an article by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes on a matter which needs to be addressed. A former MI-5 agent supposedly detailed by the SIS to investigate reports that the Russian FSB had compromising information about Donald Trump apparently resigned in frustration that despite the fact that the FBI had been investigating the same matter for seven months, it was sitting on its conclusions. He reportedly turned several memos on the investigation over to Sen. John McCain, who shared them with FBI Director Comey. They were the subject of a briefing given to both President Obama and President-elect Trump.
If we can dismiss them, shouldn't we know that? And if can't dismiss them, why not? How worried should we be? Certainty may not be possible here. But there is a great deal of difference between a ten percent chance that the dossier is accurate, or partially accurate, and a 90% chance. Shouldn't we know whether it seems to the intelligence community to be closer to the first or to the second?
According to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, some conclusion regarding the authenticity of the documents and the information they contain was, in fact, reached. He explains the briefing on the contents of the documents given to both President Obama and Mr. Trump thus:
The IC (Intelligence Community) has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
What were those conclusions? And why are they being kept secret?
If, as Mr. Trump loudly insists, the documents are fraudulent and the accusations are false, and the intelligence community has so concluded, why not clear Mr. Trump's name by announcing that conclusion? Apparently, the evidence is not strong enough to result in a positive conclusion. On the other hand, if the intelligence community has concluded that there is merit in the accusations, or even that there are grounds to suspect that there might be, shouldn't we know that, too- and doesn't the very silence of the intelligence community leave Mr. Trump under a shadow he may not deserve to be under?
Since the information has apparently has not been verified by either the intelligence community or the numerous independent investigations which have been looking int the accusations for months, the question Hennessey and Wittes ask is an acute one: why are they still apparently being taken seriously?
When Mr. Trump himself insisted so loudly and so long that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya and thus constitutionally ineligible to be president, there was no hesitation in making the falsehood of that accusation a matter of public record (not that Mr. Trump was stopped by that fact from continuing to insist on it), we were not left in suspense. Since the matter involved here is a question of whether the man who on Friday will become President of the United States and is known already to be in a position to profit substantially from his foreign policy decisions regarding Russia due to his large holdings there and business connections with important Russian officials (and who has refused to take adequate steps to eliminate this conflict of interest, insisting that putting his holdings in a trust to be administered by his children ought to be enough) is in a position to be blackmailed by that very country is a matter of grave national concern, especially since his own views seem to tilt so strongly in favor of that country's dictator.
In national security matters, a different standard of proof is involved than in criminal trials, even though Mr. Trump and Republicans generally seem not to realize that fact. You have to go on the basis of probabilities, of the preponderance of the evidence, as the lawyers say. But you also have to bear in mind the stakes. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is simply not a reasonable standard, and if there is even a reasonable risk that the information is true, the American people deserve to know that fact and just what the evidence is. Sen. McCain is right: a Senate select committee to investigate the matter, perhaps meeting in executive session, is very much in order.
Perhaps we might have to take the word of Sen. McCain and his colleagues for the likelihood that the reports are true. But the matter is surely not, as Mr. Trump insists, a matter of "fake news." The apparent fact that the charges cannot be dismissed out of hand is very much real news. For that matter,
Basic decency and yes, even the Eighth Commandment require that the matter be handled delicately and Mr. Trump's privacy not be invaded more than necessary. But when a man chooses a career in public life he gives up a certain amount of privacy, and when runs for President he gives up any claim to it in any matter where the national security of the United States is involved.
The matter needs to be investigated by people independent of the Executive Branch and directly accountable to the American people. We certainly shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the reports are true. But the stakes are too high to simply blow it off.
ADDENDUM: After consideration, I have decided not to include a link to the unredacted dossier as released by "Buzzfeed." It's a matter of public record, but even repeating the details strikes me as unfair to Mr. Trump. But here is another article by Hennessey, Wittes and Quinta Jurecic putting it into perspective.