Redactions next Mueller report battle for Democrats
Nearly 1,000 black marks dot special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, each a redaction of information the Justice Department says shouldn’t be made public tantalizing morsels about what else might be lurking.
Democrats say far too much has been hidden, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York last week sent a subpoena demanding the full unredacted report, as well as all of the evidence Mr. Mueller gathered during his 22-month investigation.
Yet open-records advocates said they were surprised at how few redactions there were in the 448-page report on Russia’s election meddling and President Trump’s activities surrounding it.
“There is a lot that was not redacted, and if the Justice Department wanted to spare the White House any embarrassment, they would have been less aggressive in making things public because there is a lot of unflattering information, to say the least, about the Trump administration,” said Steven Aftergood, a leading transparency activist. “That’s a good thing because it shows the Justice Department was not abusing its authority to withhold information.”
Nearly half of the redactions appear to be where prosecutors wanted to shield ongoing cases that spun out of Mr. Mueller’s work but were apparently not central to his mandate to investigate election-meddling and whether the president obstructed the ensuing probe.
In one section, 14 separate ongoing investigations Mr. Mueller farmed out to other prosecutors are mentioned, but details of 12 of them are entirely redacted.
“It would be very interesting to know all of the cases that have been referred to other prosecutors, but there is an argument on why they should be withheld at this point,” Mr. Aftergood said.
Ongoing cases are also likely the reason for redactions in sections of the report dealing with the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with WikiLeaks, such as a section where Mr. Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen told investigators about “an incident” with then-candidate Trump at Trump Tower in 2016. The nature of the incident is blurred.
The next paragraph teases that onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort “expressed excitement” about a release, but the specifics are shielded. So are Mr. Trump’s words upon learning that WikiLeaks released emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
The government has indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in connection with hacking secret military files and is seeking to extradite Mr. Assange from Britain to face trial in the U.S. The government is also prosecuting informal Trump adviser Roger Stone, who is accused of lying to Congress about his interactions with WikiLeaks.
Attorney General William Barr spent roughly three weeks poring through the report to figure out what needed to be shielded from public view.
He said four categories would be redacted: sensitive grand jury information, sensitive U.S. intelligence data, details related to ongoing investigations and information that could infringe on the personal privacy of peripheral third parties.
Reuters news agency counted the redactions and found ongoing matters material was blacked out 427 times, grand jury information was redacted 358 times, intelligence methods were redacted 94 times and privacy redactions occurred 74 times.
Mr. Barr initially suggested that every page of the report contained information that needed to be hidden but apparently managed to pare that down by last week’s release.
He also has offered to make a less-redacted version available to a select group of members of Congress. He told them he could let them see everything but the grand jury information, which he said he is not allowed to share under the law.
Democrats said Mr. Barr’s efforts aren’t good enough.
Mr. Nadler issued his subpoena Friday, saying the parts blacked out of the report “appear to be significant.”
Watchdog groups saw it otherwise.
“It is hard to argue that Barr has been unreasonable in this process,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, adding that “a remarkable amount of material” has been made public.
Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog, said she was pleased there was “only minimal” redactions in the public version of the Mueller report.
However, she said Mr. Barr should give Capitol Hill an unredacted version.
“There are over 400 members of Congress, and they all have the same duty to legislate,” she said. “This report touches on a few issues like election security, foreign lobbying laws or even if they need to take action to hold the president and his staff accountable. A lot of that redacted information could be incredibly valuable to Congress.”
Many Democrats are convinced that the pathway to impeaching Mr. Trump lies in the Mueller report, and they have turned the special counsel into a hero.
Yet Mr. Mueller’s team worked with the attorney general to decide which information to withhold., which makes Democrats’ complaints about redactions somewhat ironic, Mr. Fitton said.
“The substantial redactions relate to ongoing investigations, and that’s Mueller’s operations they are trying to impede,” he said. “This is just political noise from the Democrats designed to distract because there was no collusion and Mueller did not find an obstruction charge.”
Mr. Nadler gave Mr. Barr less than two weeks to produce the full report. It’s almost certain he will reject those demands, and a lengthy legal battle will ensue.
Analysts said a faster avenue may be Freedom of Information Act requests, several of which have already been filed and quickly brought to courts.
“If the subpoena battle ends up in court, it would set the clock back many months,” Mr. Aftergood said. “There would be all kinds of procedural motions that will take a long time, while the FOIA cases are already before a judge. It is more likely those cases will be more productive at this point.”
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has vowed to “fast track” the FOIA cases.
“Once the court gets involved, there is an independent evaluator looking at these redactions and whether they were proper,” Ms. Hempowicz said. “That’s a logical and healthy place for the decisions to be made.”