Step Away From the Sharpie

We’ll know by the end of next week whether the FBI is in any mood to allow greater transparency, and much needed transparency at that.

The congressional committees conducting investigations involving the bureau—whether it involves the Russia question or the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails—have found themselves flummoxed time and again by what I have called the “Sharpie-pen brigade.” Congress compels the FBI to release important documents, and then the bureau’s redactors render them meaningless. They even, perhaps out of sheer orneriness, perhaps out of incompetence, often black out information that has already been published in major newspapers.

When the House Intelligence Committee majority released its Russia report last month, it suffered mightily at the censor’s heavy hand. And now, as of late last week, the Senate Homeland Security Committee has released hundreds of pages of texts between chatty FBI pals Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, related to their conduct while working on the FBI’s Russia investigation . National Review’s Andrew McCarthy has given a capable review of the extensive redactions, complete with tantalizing hints at what might be under the cover of all those word-obscuring black blocks.

Those redactions displeased committee chairman Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who has “respectfully” written FBI Director Christopher Wray “to request information about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) efforts to comply with congressional oversight.” In particular, the senator is concerned with “the heavy redactions applied to documents, the slow pace of production, and potential conflicts of interest with FBI employees reviewing the documents.”

It’s this last concern that Johnson is narrowing in on, the possibility that some of those doing the redactions may be cutting out information that involves themselves. To investigate that worry, the senator is asking not only for “[t]he FBI standards or criteria for determining what information to redact” but the names of all FBI “employee(s) that are applying redactions.” If the FBI’s sense of humor is particularly perverse, they might send such a list—but with all the names blacked out. I doubt Johnson would be amused.

The senator makes explicit that he believes that FBI agents and officials could be using their power to redact as a tool for protecting themselves. He asks for the names of “all FBI employees who have been involved in redacting information from responsive documents, including employees who may no longer be involved in the process.”

Johnson puts the bureau’s management on notice that they will be held responsible if those doing the redacting are abusing their power: “Please explain the FBI’s steps to prevent conflicts of interest in the document production process,” the senator writes. He asks whether “any FBI employees whose records may be responsive to Congressional oversight have been a part of the document production process in any manner.” If there are, “please identify these employees.”

Johnson gave Wray a deadline of Thursday, May 24. (Note that lawmakers are getting savvy in not asking to be responded to at the end of a given week, Friday afternoon document-dumps being what they are.)

The best hope for answering the many questions swirling around the various Washington probes is for there to be as much transparency as possible. And what could be less transparent than the opaque black marks of the redactor’s pen.

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