Senate probes FBI's heavy-handed use of redactions to obstruct congressional investigators

Senate probes FBI's heavy-handed use of redactions to obstruct congressional investigators
© Greg Nash
When it comes to questionable behavior by some inside our intel agencies, there are endless termite tunnels to crawl through and not enough investigative bandwidth — or will — to examine each one.
 
For the first time in my memory, a member of Congress is exploring one of these relatively uncharted tunnels: improper redactions of government documents. The head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas GOP senator: Trump’s policies doing 'permanent damage' GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Wis.), is not only seeking redacted material but also is trying to find out who is responsible for withholding it.
 
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Improper redactions are when federal reviewers — in consultation with their political masters — block out parts of documents that the public or Congress is entitled to see. Under policy and law, redactions are only permitted in limited, carefully defined circumstances, such as to protect national security. After all, government officials do not lord over us; they work for us, on our behalf. They own neither the documents they generate nor the information they collect; we do.
 
 
Yet, too often, the feds have redacted information in an apparent attempt to obstruct efforts to investigate their actions, or to prevent release of material that implicates them in embarrassing behavior or wrongdoing. 
 
In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Johnson accuses the FBI of providing a “slow-walked, inadequate response” to his queries. “Moving forward, I expect more complete and expeditious responses to my oversight requests,” writes Johnson. 
 
He includes some seemingly outrageous examples found among text messages written by FBI agent Peter Strzok to his reported then-lover, FBI attorney Lisa Page. One of them reads, "Currently fighting with Stu for this FISA," where "Stu for this FISA" was redacted in a version turned over to Congress.
 
“FISA” refers to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates limited terms under which the FBI can wiretap U.S. citizens. It’s not known who “Stu” is but a man named Stuart Evans is National Security Division deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department. And the date of the text coincides with the timeframe in which FBI agents successfully convinced a FISA judge to let them wiretap Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
 
Other redactions included: "Went well, best we could have expected. Other than L.C.'s quote, 'the White house is running this'” (the initials “L.C.” had been redacted); and "Jesus. More BO leaks in the NYT" ("BO" had been redacted).
 
An additional redaction included this entire section: "Clinton, Mills, and Abedin all said they felt the server was permitted and did not receive information that it was not. To the extent there was objection down the line in IRM, we did not pursue that as State OIG did, because it was not a key question behind our investigation. There are going to be many avenues we might have pursued if we had unlimited time and resources, but this is one of those categories of wouldn't have changed our fundamental understanding of the gravamen of the case."
 
According to Johnson, “None of the above redactions are clearly justified” under criteria outlined in Justice Department communications. “The FBI and the Justice Department have not explained the basis for redactions to these text messages, or any other document produced to date.”
 
This has been a serious government-wide problem as long as I’ve worked in Washington DC — since 1995 — and doubtlessly prior to that. I’ve testified as a journalist before both House and Senate committees about the many ways the feds have systematically perverted the Freedom of Information law and used their custodial control over public documents to obfuscate, delay and withhold.
 
Many times, only after much pressure and delay, do federal agencies allow Congress to access documents Congress is entitled to see. And the feds have grown increasingly heavy-handed in dictating ridiculous terms. They may only allow the documents to be “reviewed” in special rooms at an agency building during certain hours; agency personnel are stationed in the rooms to monitor reviews, like Soviet minders. Congress and its staff may be forbidden from taking copies of the documents or permitted only to scribble handwritten notes.
 
When improperly redacted material is uncovered, such as in court cases, nobody is punished. The feds use our tax money and public time to keep us from seeing our own documents, then go on to commit the next obstruction with impunity.
 
This practice could be stopped if Congress, the courts which see the abuses, or the agencies themselves were to get serious about cracking down. But the will seems nonexistent.
 
For his part, Sen. Johnson is demanding that the FBI answer questions he began posing months ago about allegedly improper redactions. In his letter to the FBI’s Wray, he demands “more complete and expeditious responses …  or I will be forced to conclude … the FBI intends to obstruct this committee’s constitutional responsibility.” 
 
But then what?
 
Some members of Congress are privately arguing that they should not look under all the rocks within our intel agencies because they need to protect the system and not undermine America’s faith in it. I would argue that the faith has been broken in many cases, and only turning over the rocks will restore it.
 
Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist, author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”