Democracy Requires a Public Mueller Report

Let Americans judge its findings for themselves.

Robert Mueller
Win McNamee / Reuters

Nancy Pelosi knew. As a ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee during George W. Bush’s administration, she repeatedly received classified briefings about the CIA’s torture program and the National Security Agency’s surveillance regime. Her inaction means there will always be doubt as to whether she has the judgment necessary to safeguard the rule of law on behalf of the American public.

So it is a relief that now-Speaker Pelosi says classified briefings will not suffice for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a statement released with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leaders insisted that “Congress requires the full report and the underlying documents so that the Committees can proceed with their independent work, including oversight and legislating to address any issues the Mueller report may raise. The American people have a right to know.”

Six House committee leaders agree. “The release of the full report and the underlying evidence and documents is urgently needed by our committees to perform their duties under the Constitution,” they wrote. “Those duties include evaluating the underlying facts and determining whether … reforms are required.”

The Democratic leadership is not alone in urging transparency. Presented with a nonbinding resolution calling for the report’s release, the full House voted 420–0 in favor. That position is prudent. Faith in Congress is low. The stakes are high. And the public wants transparency: “Strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans say Mueller’s report should be made public in its entirety,” The Washington Post reports, “with 81 percent overall supporting its release.”

That’s a big number: Many fans and many detractors of President Donald Trump alike want to see the special counsel’s work for themselves––or at least they don’t believe that it ought to be suppressed by political elites.

Trump himself says the report’s release “wouldn’t bother me at all.”

Nevertheless, the Department of Justice has yet to release it to Congress or the public. Both are relying on a four-page summary prepared by Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee. Barr says he needs time to redact portions of the report as dictated by “applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.”

That statement raises concerns, even granting the justifiability of narrow redactions to protect intelligence assets who provided insight into Russian activities.

As Ryan Goodman and Andy Wright noted at Just Security, “The Justice Department is likely poised to make the claim that, in accord with longstanding Department policy, it won’t release derogatory information about people who the prosecutors do not indict in the course of an investigation.”

That policy is warranted in many circumstances. The innocent should be spared, as much as possible, from the consequences of the intrusive methods that the federal government marshals to investigate potential crimes. But the special counsel’s probe was unlike most other DOJ cases: It was primarily a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal one. It concerned the integrity of American elections, a matter of the highest public interest. And it involved the actions of elected and appointed officials in areas where they’re oath-bound to meet a higher standard than noncriminality.

There’s a strong case for exposing their shortcomings.

“The natural remedy for conduct designed to undermine democratic elections, and public confidence in them, is disclosure of that nefarious conduct to the democratic citizenry victimized by it,” Goodman and Wright concluded. “If the information concerning what certain Americans did in concert with a foreign adversary is derogatory, well that’s exactly what Mueller was charged to find out, and what the public has a right to know.”

Indeed, information of that sort would not only color public judgments about public officials, but also influence policy debates as legislators, digital speech platforms, and election officials work to prevent foreign interference in future elections.

I don’t know whether reading the whole report will leave me more or less impressed with Mueller, more or less favorably disposed to Trump and his allies, or more or less concerned about foreign efforts to influence U.S. elections. I do know that all of those matters are at the core of our civics right now, and that we ought to see as much information as possible so we can reach our own conclusions.