Why Congress May Not Want a Completely Unredacted Mueller Report

Yesterday we discussed potential redactions to the Mueller report with respect to grand jury material protected under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e). Today we will discuss the other category of redactions mentioned in Attorney General Barr’s March 24 letter, namely “any information that could impact other ongoing matters, including those that the Special Counsel has referred to other offices.” In other words, the report contains some information about, or that “could impact,” ongoing criminal matters relating to the subject of the special counsel’s investigation and/or individuals involved involved in that investigation as targets, subjects or witnesses.

Historically, the Justice Department has been extremely reluctant to share its internal investigative and litigation files with Congress. Attorney General Robert Jackson famously declared the executive branch position in a 1941 opinion responding to congressional requests for FBI reports and other internal DOJ documents relating to investigations of labor unrest in industrial establishments with naval contracts. See Position of the Executive Dep’t Regarding Investigative Reports, 40 Op. Atty Gen. 45, 1941 U.S. AG Lexis 28 (Apr. 30, 1941). Jackson argued that such disclosure “would not be in the public interest” because it would “seriously prejudice law enforcement” (by tipping the government’s hand to actual and potential defendants), assist foreign adversaries, undermine the use of confidential informants and perpetuate “the grossest kind of injustice to innocent individuals.” Id.  at **2-4. Jackson allowed, however, that there were exceptions to the executive’s position, including that “pertinent information would be supplied in impeachment proceedings, usually instituted at the suggestion of the Department and for the good of the administration of justice.” Id. at *12.

In fact, Congress has been successful in obtaining internal Justice Department documents on a number of occasions. See generally Congressional Investigations of the Department of Justice, 1920-2012: History, Law, and Practice, CRS Report for Congress 15-49 (Nov. 5, 2012). In most if not all cases, however, the congressional investigation involved alleged wrongdoing at the Justice Department itself, not merely an attempt to learn about wrongdoing being investigated by the Department. Moreover, Congress has been far more successful at obtaining information from closed investigations. Thus CRS notes:

In the last 85 years, Congress has consistently sought and obtained access to information concerning prosecutorial misconduct in Department of Justice officials in closed cases; and access to pre-decisional deliberative prosecutorial memoranda– while often resisted by the Department– is usually released upon committee insistence, as well. In contrast, the Department rarely releases– and committees rarely subpoena– material relevant to open criminal investigations.

Id. at 2.

This suggests that the Justice Department would be on solid ground if it redacted information from the Mueller report relating to open criminal investigations, particularly in the absence of any claim of wrongdoing regarding how the Department is handling those investigations. (Note the potential irony that those in Congress who are alleging wrongdoing at the Department, namely House Republicans, are likely not those who would be pushing for full disclosure of the Mueller report). Moreover, congressional investigating committees might want to think twice before insisting that information relating to open criminal investigations be produced since this will tip off potential defendants as to what allegations are being investigated and what evidence exists to support them.

Of course, the committees will want to scrutinize any redactions to make sure that they are no broader than necessary to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations. They will properly demand assurance that none of the redacted information will be shared with potential defendants, including the president. They may even ask the attorney general to promise that specified Justice Department officials are free to share information they believe to be relevant to impeachment proceedings with the House Judiciary committee (I am not placing any bets on how likely they are to get that).

At the end of the day, though, Congress may not want to take a knee-jerk position against any redactions related to open criminal investigations.

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