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Appeals court lifts redactions in parts of Mueller report

Despite an appellate panel noting the soon-to-be-released information offers little beyond what was already made public by the report on 2016 election interference, BuzzFeed’s senior investigative reporter hailed the ruling as a huge win.

WASHINGTON (CN) — BuzzFeed News was handed a partial victory from the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday when the federal appeals court ordered the Department of Justice to release additional information from the agency’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The dispute is one of many involving the DOJ’s handling of the release of information related to the controversial two-year investigation by then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

U.S. Circuit Judge Karen L. Henderson wrote in Tuesday's opinion that the portions of the Mueller report that the D.C. Circuit is ordering the government to unredact might not shine much light on anything new. 

“The factual circumstances surrounding this portion of the investigation are already publicly available in the unredacted portions of the report,” the George W. Bush appointee wrote in the 18-page opinion, noting that the soon-to-be-released sections detail how Mueller “carried out his duties to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct.” 

Still, Henderson said the disclosure would offer insight into how the DOJ “interpreted the relevant law and applied it to already public facts” before failing to find enough evidence to link former President Donald Trump or his campaign to any illegal activity. 

Other information requested by the plaintiffs – the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which was not involved in the appeal, along with BuzzFeed and its senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold – will remain redacted. 

According to Henderson, these sections will stay behind black ink because the people mentioned in them are not public figures and were not charged with crimes, and therefore retain a higher level of privacy.

“The privacy interests relating to individuals investigated for but not charged with making false statements remain significant,” she wrote, before noting that the appeals court's own in-camera review suggested those details would be “highly stigmatizing.” 

“We therefore conclude that their substantial privacy interests tip the scale in favor of nondisclosure for this category of material,” she added. 

Henderson was joined on the unanimous three-judge panel by U.S. Circuit Judges David Tatel and Harry Edwards, appointed by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, respectively.  

Leopold took to Twitter to celebrate the ruling, calling it a “massive win" and suggesting it would reveal new information about Donald Trump Jr.

"Just a huge win for transparency and the public's right to know," he tweeted.

A regular submitter of Freedom of Information Act requests and filer of lawsuits when those requests fail to be properly addressed, Leopold noted the uniqueness of an appeals court reversing in a case like this.

“You just rarely see this kind of decision and they note the significant public interest behind it,” he said.

Mark Schoofs, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, similarly applauded the court’s decision, calling it a “huge legal victory both for BuzzFeed and champions of government transparency.”

Attempts to reach the Department of Justice and the Electronic Privacy Information Center for comment were not returned by press time.

Tuesday's ruling comes after several court battles hoping to peel back blank spots in the Mueller report.  

The lower court’s order calling for an in-camera review came after then-Attorney General William Barr made public statements clearing Trump of any guilt prior to the report’s release. He said in part that the evidence Mueller gathered "does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference."

But Mueller said in a letter following Barr's statement that his team reached the decision to not charge Trump for obstruction of justice in part due to thorny constitutional questions surrounding the indictment of a sitting president. He then went a step further and said that if the investigation had clearly shown Trump did not obstruct justice, he "would so state."

"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," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton wrote in a 23-page opinion in March 2020.

The case will now return to the lower court for Walton to order the release of the unredacted pages.

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