Sus­pi­cion is high as Barr redacts Mueller re­port

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Devlin Bar­rett

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.

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