DOJ ready for more Mueller report declassifications

More than a year after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released, the Justice Department has determined more of the redacted report can be declassified.

Civil division attorneys, including trial attorney Courtney Enlow, filed a four-page submission to a Washington, D.C., federal court on Tuesday, providing sealed responses to the judge’s questions about the redactions in Mueller’s 448-page report and noting willingness to reveal more after a judge’s ruling.

The response came after Judge Reggie Walton, a district court appointee of President George W. Bush who previously questioned Attorney General William Barr’s “credibility” in the Freedom of Information Act case brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and BuzzFeed, provided the Justice Department a spreadsheet with questions about the redactions.

“The Department conducted another comprehensive review of the redactions. In the intervening more than a year since the Department first asserted its FOIA exemptions, a number of circumstances have changed, including the completion of trials and investigations, the provision of discovery in litigation, the evolution of malicious influence actors’ tactics and techniques, and the release of information in response to congressional and other requests. For example, as litigation has progressed in certain matters, techniques used during the investigations have become known,” the Justice Department said.

“Accordingly, in conducting this additional review, the Department determined that certain information in the Report now could be released without harming government interests or pending matters,” the DOJ added. “Because of the time and resources needed to reprocessing records, which necessarily impairs the Department’s ability to process other records in a timely fashion, the Department plans to re-process the Mueller Report after the Court has issued its ruling on the redactions.”

The Justice Department will meet with the judge for an ex parte hearing on Aug. 17.

Mueller’s report, released in April 2019, said the Russians interfered in 2016 in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” The special counsel also laid out 10 possible instances of Donald Trump obstructing justice but did not reach a conclusion. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded Trump had not obstructed justice.

DOJ lawyers also filed a 17-page, heavily redacted declaration from Vanessa Brinkmann, a senior counsel in the Office of Information Policy, with the court on Tuesday, providing possible hints about what new information could be revealed in the future while explaining the current redactions.

“The information pertains to specific sources of information as well as to capabilities and techniques that are used by the United States to obtain critical foreign intelligence information. In particular, [Redacted],” the declaration noted. “[Redacted] OIP took care to release as much information related to the Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) use of social media as possible, without creating an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of unwitting third parties. For example, [Redacted].”

Brinkmann also wrote: “The individuals who comprise these groups were unwittingly utilized by ⁠— and in that sense, were essentially victimized by – interference efforts emanating from Russia, because they apparently did not know that their contacts or activities involved Russian nationals. OIP has withheld the names of these certain Facebook groups to avoid the intense media scrutiny and risk of harassment to these individuals if their unwitting involvement with Russian nationals were revealed. [Redacted].”

Numerous pages of the declaration were entirely blacked out.

Walton, who has seen the full, unredacted report, said earlier this year the court had “grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report” and its “impacts on the Justice Department’s subsequent justifications” and that its redactions of the report were authorized under FOIA.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec pushed back against Walton’s claims, calling the court’s assertions “contrary to the facts.”

“The original redactions in the public report were made by Department attorneys, in consultation with senior members of Special Counsel Mueller’s team, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and members of the Intelligence Community,” Kupec said. “In response to FOIA requests, the entire report was then reviewed by career attorneys, including different career attorneys with expertise in FOIA cases — a process in which the Attorney General played no role. There is no basis to question the work or good faith of any of these career Department lawyers.”

The Supreme Court also recently agreed to take up the battle between the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department, in which congressional Democrats are seeking access to the redacted and underlying grand jury materials from Mueller’s report. Those arguments will be heard in the fall, and it’s possible the decision might not be released until after the 2020 election.

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