Suspicion is high as Barr redacts Mueller report
WASHINGTON – The escalating political battle over special counsel Robert Mueller III’s report centers on redactions – a lawyerly editing process that has angered distrustful Democrats eager to see the all evidence and conclusions from his 22-month investigation of President Trump’s conduct and Russia’s elaborate interference operation during the 2016 election.
Attorney General William Barr is redacting at least four categories of information from the report, which spans nearly 400 pages, before issuing it to Congress and the public. Legal experts say he has wide discretion to determine what should not be revealed, meaning the fight over blacked-out boxes is likely to spawn months of fights between Congress and the Justice Department, and it may end up in the courts.
The first public confrontation is imminent, with Barr scheduled to appear Tuesday and Wednesday before the House and Senate Appropriations committees for hearings ostensibly about the Justice Department’s budget. He is expected to face extensive questioning about the Mueller report and his ongoing redaction process, though, and his testimony will be scrutinized for any sign he is trying to protect the president.
“There’s a lot of pressure all pointing in the direction of doing a robust release,” said John Bies, who held senior roles in the Justice Department during the Obama administration and now works at American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group. “We are very hopeful the attorney general will do the right thing here and make everything public that can lawfully be made public.”
Barr has promised to release the redacted report by mid-April, having announced in late March that Mueller did not find a conspiracy between Russians and Trump or his campaign and that Mueller decided not to reach a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice. The attorney general and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, looked at the obstruction evidence and determined it did not rise to the level of a crime, Barr wrote.
The president’s critics questioned whether Barr soft-pedaled Mueller’s findings, concerns that intensified after recent reports indicating some on Mueller’s team are unhappy with the brevity of Barr’s initial report to Congress and believe more could and should be said about the seriousness of what they found. Barr is working with Rosenstein, Mueller and their key aides to produce an edited version of the report. In a March 29 letter to lawmakers, he spelled out four areas that would be redacted: grand jury material, which could include any documents and testimony presented; information that could reveal the government’s intelligence-gathering sources or methods; information that could compromise ongoing investigations; and details that would violate the privacy of those deemed “peripheral” to the investigation.
All of those categories give Barr significant latitude to decide what to leave in and what to take out of the report’s public version, none more so than the grand jury material. Under the federal rules of criminal procedure, government officials are not allowed to share material from grand jury proceedings. There are few exceptions.
“Prosecutors generally take a broad view of what constitutes grand jury information in order to avoid inadvertently disclosing it, but here there’s a strong counterbalancing interest in ensuring that everything that can come out does come out,” Bies said.
Mueller’s investigators issued more than 2,800 subpoenas and executed nearly 500 search warrants.
In an odd stroke of timing, the federal appeals court in Washington issued a ruling Friday in an unrelated case that buttresses the argument for keeping a close hold on grand jury information. The panel ruled judges may not carve out new exceptions to the current grand jury secrecy rules – though it also affirmed that grand jury material can be shared with the House of Representatives under an exception that dates to 1974 and a ruling by U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica during the investigation of President Richard Nixon.