Thursday, March 5, 2020
The issue of the Attorney General's candor is central to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation seeking the unredacted Mueller Report. In the consolidated cases of Electronic Freedom Foundation v. DOJ, and Jason Leopold & BuzzFeed News v. DOJ, the plaintiffs essentially challenge the basis of FOIA exemptions which DOJ has listed as justifying the numerous redactions.
In his Opinion today, United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, Reggie Walton, granted the plaintiffs' requests that the court conduct in camera review of the unredacted version of the Mueller Report. What makes the Opinion noteworthy is Judge Walton's explicit statements regarding the untrustworthiness of the Attorney General that justified the need for in camera review. After a detailed discussion of the circumstances, Judge Walton wrote:
Although Attorney General Barr can be commended for his effort to expeditiously release a summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions in the public interest, the Court is troubled by his hurried release of his March 24, 2019 letter well in advance of when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was ultimately made available to the public. The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report—a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report.
As noted earlier, the Court has reviewed the redacted version of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr’s representations made during his April 18, 2019 press conference, and Attorney General Barr’s April 18, 2019 letter. And, the Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report. The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.
These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr’s lack of candor specifically, call into question Attorney General Barr’s credibility and in turn, the Department’s representation that “all of the information redacted from the version of the [Mueller] Report released by [ ] Attorney General [Barr]” is protected from disclosure by its claimed FOIA exemptions. In the Court’s view, Attorney General Barr’s representation that the Mueller Report would be “subject only to those redactions required by law or by compelling law enforcement, national security, or personal privacy interests” cannot be credited without the Court’s independent verification in light of Attorney General Barr’s conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report, id., Ex. 7 (April 18, 2019 Letter) at 3, and it would be disingenuous for the Court to conclude that the redactions of the Mueller Report pursuant to the FOIA are not tainted by Attorney General Barr’s actions and representations.
[brackets in original; bolding added].
Later in the opinion, Judge Walton continued:
Here, although it is with great consternation, true to the oath that the undersigned took upon becoming a federal judge, and the need for the American public to have faith in the judicial process, considering the record in this case, the Court must conclude that the actions of Attorney General Barr and his representations about the Mueller Report preclude the Court’s acceptance of the validity of the Department’s redactions without its independent verification. Adherence to the FOIA’s objective of keeping the American public informed of what its government is up to demands nothing less.
submit the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to the Court for in camera review. If, after reviewing the unredacted version of the Mueller Report, the Court concludes that all of the information has been appropriately withheld under the claimed FOIA exemptions, it will issue a supplemental Memorandum Opinion and Order granting the Department’s motion for summary judgment on that ground and denying the plaintiffs’ cross- motions. On the other hand, if the Court concludes after its in camera review that any of the redacted information was inappropriately withheld, it will issue a supplemental Memorandum Opinion and Order that comports with that finding.
A federal judge's opinion that the Attorney General's "lack of candor" supports an independent judicial examination of redacted material implicates separation of powers issues, to be sure, but it is also yet another indication of the lack of confidence in the Attorney General.