It’s been two weeks since Attorney General William Barr told Congress that special counsel Robert Mueller had finished his investigation.
But while people across the country hold their breath waiting for Barr to hand Congress Mueller’s nearly 400-page findings, reportedly later this month, some people are taking matters into their own hands.
The Justice Department has received 198 public records requests related to the Mueller probe since the investigation ended on March 22, the department said in a court filing Friday. That’s nearly half of the 415 records requests related to the Mueller probe that the Justice Department was processing as of March 29.
Requests for records from the special counsel’s office continue to pile up, according to Vanessa Brinkmann, senior counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy.
“This number continues to grow each day,” Brinkmann said in the court filing.
It’s not just the Mueller report people are after. The number of records requests the Office of Information Policy receives has risen dramatically since President Donald Trump took office, according to the filing. In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the office received an average of 3,170 requests per year, up from an average of 1,046 per year during the George W. Bush administration and 1,505 per year during the Obama administration.
Even before the spike in requests to the Justice Department, the public records system across the government was notoriously underfunded and responsible for months- or years-long delays. In fiscal year 2018, the average processing time for a complex request at the Office of Information Policy was about 75 days.
That’s nothing compared to, for example, the Defense Department’s Southern Command, where the average processing time for a complex request in fiscal year 2018 was a whopping 864 days.
The intentions of this system, at least, were good. Back in 1977, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, to let members of the public request records from executive branch agencies. Anyone can make a FOIA request, but it’s become a favorite tool of reporters, advocacy groups, lawyers, and businesses.
The Justice Department did not say what records people have requested from the special counsel’s office, or who requested them. But the timing suggests that many of the requests — including two by this reporter — are for Mueller’s final report and related documents.
The good news for requesters is that the Justice Department can’t release the Mueller report to one requester but withhold it from others. So everyone who requested the report is likely to get it, though the timing may vary.
The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy did not close any FOIA requests related to the Mueller probe in January or February, according to its website. It did close two requests for records about unspecified investigations by referring the requesters to other offices.
Barr told Congress last month that he will release the report by mid-April. But he wasn’t clear on whether that timeline was for public release or just release to Congress. He also said that he and the special counsel are redacting classified information, grand jury material, and information related to ongoing investigations.
That set up a fight with House Democrats, who want the attorney general to ask a court for permission to share the grand jury information with Congress. The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines last week to authorize its chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), to issue subpoenas for the full report and underlying evidence. Nadler has said he will give Barr time to voluntarily comply before making good on the subpoena threat.
If Nadler does subpoena the report, the issue will likely wind up in court. But some FOIA requesters have already sued. Friday’s declaration was part of the government’s response in a case brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold, who’s know for his prolific use of FOIA, has also sued for the report.
If those and other cases move forward, they could end up challenging specific redactions in whatever version of the report the Justice Department releases to the public. Agencies have to justify redactions under specific exemptions written into FOIA.