A Proposal for Dealing with Mueller Report Redactions

In our political culture of contempt and pervasive paranoia, it is hardly surprising that Attorney General Barr’s refusal to release immediately the unreacted Mueller report has led many to accuse him of a coverup. So while I agree with Ben Wittes that everyone should chill out and wait to see what Barr actually produces in the next week or so, the reality is that any redactions will raise suspicions.

Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to address this problem. The idea comes from the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998. The House Judiciary committee, which was reviewing the allegations against Clinton in the Starr report, wanted access to the Freeh and LaBella memos, internal Justice Department documents that recommended appointment of an independent counsel to investigate campaign fundraising violations during the 1996 presidential election cycle. The Justice Department took the position that these memoranda could not be shared with Congress because, among other reasons, they contained grand jury material protected under Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e). (It would later turn out DOJ had been rather overly enthusiastic about designating grand jury material, including for example a quote from a Dick Morris book).

In light of the impeachment investigation (and the associated political pressure from Congress), the Clinton Justice Department agreed to ask the judge supervising the grand jury, Chief Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, to allow the committee access to the memoranda. After a couple of attempts (the committee, through House counsel, had to file its own motion after the court denied DOJ’s first request), Judge Johnson agreed to allow the committee limited access to the memoranda. As Peter Baker described the court’s decision: “Each side could send a single staff member to read the memos, but no copies could be made and no notes taken.” Peter Baker, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton 183-85 (2000). That way the committee would have a basis for requesting any additional material it believed was relevant to its proceedings (it ultimately did not do so).

A similar process could be used to deal with redactions from the Mueller report. The court could permit two Judiciary committee staffers (one majority, one minority) to review the unreacted report. They would be prohibited from taking notes or disclosing the contents of the report publicly. If, however, there were redactions the committee believed to be improper or to contain important information, it could ask the court to release that information.

This seems like a reasonable way for protecting any legitimate Justice Department interests while reassuring the public that the attorney general is fulfilling his promise of maximum transparency.

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