A federal judge has ruled that the Justice Department improperly redacted significant portions of the Mueller report and must release those sections by Nov. 2, just one day before the presidential election.
In a 40-page opinion released Wednesday, US District Court Judge Reggie Walton said the agency violated federal law when it redacted sections of the report dealing with, among other things, discussions within the special counsel’s office about whether to charge certain individuals with crimes. Government attorneys had justified their decision to withhold those portions under a section of law known as the deliberative process privilege, or “Exemption 5,” but Walton wrote that it “failed to show that it appropriately withheld information” under that standard.
At the same time, the judge ruled that the government was right to redact much of the Mueller report under separate exemptions that are designed to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations, law enforcement techniques and procedures, and individuals’ privacy.
The ruling and an accompanying order mean the Justice Department will be obliged to unveil at least 15 previously blacked-out pages from volume one of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, on or before Nov. 2. In addition to charging decisions, those pages appear to involve discussions related to the hack of emails from the Democratic National Committee in early 2016 and the Trump campaign’s interest in those documents when WikiLeaks released them that June.
Walton rendered his decision in response to an 18-month legal challenge by BuzzFeed News and the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to unredact the entire Mueller report under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last March, in a scathing 23-page opinion on the matter, Walton said Attorney General Bill Barr's public characterization of the Mueller report in March 2019 "failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings." Walton questioned whether Barr's "intent was to create a one-sided narrative" about the report and whether he had undertaken a "calculated attempt to influence public discourse" in favor of President Donald Trump "despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.”
Walton then ordered government attorneys to turn over an unredacted version of the report so he could determine whether the redactions were legitimate, and he subsequently summoned Justice Department lawyers to closed-door hearings to defend their rationale.
This week’s ruling marks the second time BuzzFeed News and EPIC have obliged the government to disclose previously secret parts of the special counsel’s final report. In June, the Justice Department released sections of the report revealing how Trump was warned ahead of time about WikiLeaks’s release of the DNC emails, yet he denied that fact in written testimony to Mueller’s team in November 2018.
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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