On May 23 of this year, President Trump gave Attorney General Bill Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify information relating to the actions of the FBI and intelligence community in investigating the 2016 Trump campaign.
Granting Barr that authority “will help ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions,” the White House said.
The move immediately set off speculation. What would Barr do? Would the public see a flood of secret documents, like records of informants and spying on the Trump campaign, like documents relating to the start of the FBI's “Crossfire Hurricane” probe, like papers on the use of the secret FISA court and wiretap authority? Congressional investigators and journalists who had long wanted to see such documents were in a state of high anticipation.
One well-connected lawmaker said he expected to see declassified documents within days, not weeks.
And then ... nothing. A week, and then two weeks, and then a month and more passed, with no declassifications. It still hasn't happened, at least not that the public knows about.
But now, anticipation is building again. Last Friday, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent a letter to key members of Congress saying he has finished his investigation into what Republicans call “FISA abuse,” but which GOP lawmakers suspect will be a much more wide-ranging look at the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
Still, the fact that the report is done does not mean Congress, or the public, can see it. Horowitz told lawmakers he has sent a draft to the Justice Department and the FBI “for classification determination and marking.”
The report will be checked for any classified information, and by all accounts, there will be lots of it. “This step is consistent with our process for reports such as this one that involve classified material,” Horowitz wrote. After going through the report, Justice Department and FBI officials will send it back to Horowitz with the classified material highlighted.
The inspector general will then prepare a version for release to the public. But that could mean a report with whole paragraphs, or whole pages, blacked out.
How much will be hidden? Some lawmakers have said they think as much as one-fifth of the Horowitz report might be redacted. That would be entirely antithetical to the public's need to understand the beginnings of the Trump-Russia affair.
That is where Barr comes in. Because of the presidential directive back in May, the attorney general will have the authority to unilaterally declassify any parts of the Horowitz report that he, Barr, feels need to be made public. That is a huge plus for the public's right to know.
Many Republicans believe the president's move was not only about the Horowitz report. They also believe Trump acted to smooth the way for John Durham, the Connecticut U.S. attorney assigned by Barr to do a full investigation of the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
It is said, and widely believed among Republicans, that Durham is using a grand jury in his investigation, and that Barr's declassification authority will be critical for Durham's work.
Trump's decision was important, a number of Republicans say, because the Justice Department and FBI have dragged their feet in declassifying important material about the Trump-Russia probe. When, in 2017 and 2018, the House Intelligence Committee sought information about the investigation, the FBI slow-walked the release of the material so much that Republicans on the committee had to appeal to Trump to declassify it. A huge controversy ensued, but the material was ultimately made public. That is the kind of delay Barr can avoid now.
The bottom line is: How much of Horowitz's findings, and later Durham's, will be made public? Americans need to know the lengths to which the nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies went in pursuit of the theory that Russia and the Trump campaign conspired to fix the presidential election. The Mueller investigation later concluded that no such conspiracy could be established.
Now, with the Horowitz and Durham investigations, it makes no sense to investigate secret wrongdoing, especially in relation to something as publicly important as an election, and keep the findings secret. That's why the White House was right when it said it is vital that “all Americans learn the truth” about what happened in 2016.