Sharply questioning the credibility of Attorney General Bill Barr, a federal court judge has ordered the Justice Department to turn over a complete copy of the Mueller report so he can personally review the hundreds of redactions and decide if they were legally justified and whether additional information should be released to the public.
The opinion was written in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by BuzzFeed News and the watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center.
US District Court Judge Reggie Walton pointedly rebuked Barr and the Department of Justice and specifically called into question his credibility. Before the redacted report was released, Walton said, Barr’s public characterization of it had “failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings.”
That has led 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,” the opinion stated.
“The Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report,” Walton wrote. “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.”
BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Information Privacy Center filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department last April in an attempt to unredact parts of the Mueller report still hidden from the public. The suit compelled the Justice Department to release a new version of Mueller’s report that spells out which of the nine justifications permitted by FOIA applied in each redaction.
Government attorneys had said in court that the release of any additional parts of the report would jeopardize ongoing investigations, national security, personal privacy, and other categories of sensitive information protected from disclosure under FOIA.
But Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said, “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."
In a statement released Friday evening, the Justice Department said Walton's "assertions were contrary to the facts."
During several hearings last year, Walton indicated he might be inclined to review an unredacted copy of the report and decide for himself if the redactions were proper and what should and shouldn’t, if anything, remain secret. At one of those hearings, Walton said Barr had “created an environment that has caused a significant part of the American public to be concerned about whether there will be full transparency."
Last month, it was revealed that Walton took Justice Department attorneys to task in another FOIA case — one related to a watchdog group’s lawsuit to pry loose records about former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabes firing. He called the government’s handling of it “disturbing,” a “mess,” and tantamount to what would happen in a “banana republic.”
This story has been updated with a statement from the Justice Department.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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