Conspiracy Theorists Will Have a Field Day With a Redacted Mueller Report

History shows that skeptics seize on redacted information to fuel their theories

Brendan Nyhan
GEN
Published in
5 min readApr 17, 2019

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Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the political world anxiously awaits the release of Robert Mueller’s report Thursday morning, much of the focus has been on what we won’t see. It’s quite likely the version that’s released to the public will be heavily redacted. Though legitimate reasons exist for the government to excise sensitive information from a public document, any omissions threaten to inspire conspiracy theories about why parts of the report was suppressed, particularly after Attorney General William Barr rushed out his own interpretation of Mueller’s findings — which favored President Trump — in a letter to Congress within 48 hours of receiving the document.

Barr said the delay in the report’s public release could be attributed to the tedious process of redacting key information. He specifically said government lawyers will omit secret grand jury testimony, information that could compromise intelligence sources and methods or ongoing investigations, and information about private citizens who are peripheral to the case.

The problem is that Barr cannot credibly commit to only redact information that is truly sensitive, especially after he already said the evidence “is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” (A conclusion, it should be noted, that Mueller himself never reached.) The power of redaction, which necessarily withholds information, is vulnerable to exploitation. As New York’s Adam K. Raymond notes, “Some Democrats are worried that Barr will use his powers of redaction to block information just because it’s embarrassing to Trump or his allies.” Indeed, Democrats have already authorized Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to subpoena the full report, though it is not clear if they will be successful or, for that matter, if the full document will ever be released publicly.

The time it has taken to release the report may be the result of slow bureaucratic review processes, not malevolence. Similarly, any overuse of redactions may be the result of risk aversion by overly cautious government lawyers rather than partisan efforts to prevent…

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Brendan Nyhan
GEN
Writer for

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan