Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The case of the unredacted Spanberger file

By Norman Leahy

August 30, 2018 at 2:32 PM

Abigail Spanberger, center, at her campaign headquarters in May in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Virginia’s 7th Congressional District race between Rep. Dave Brat (R) and Abigail Spanberger (D) has offered up a classic example of how a blunder can change the narrative of a close race. The Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund was caught shopping Spanberger’s unredacted government background files (officially known as an SF-86) to the press.

Such information isn’t supposed to be in anyone’s hands outside of government, and, even then, on very limited grounds. This sent the Spanberger team into overdrive.

On a press call Wednesday afternoon, former CIA officer and Obama special assistant Ned Price said he was “absolutely floored” to learn unredacted copies of Spanberger’s files had been released via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Office of Personnel Management states some information from the SF-86 may be released to “the news media or the general public,” but such disclosures are limited to “factual information the disclosure of which would be in the public interest and which would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

In other words, the CLF and America Rising, which filed the FOIA request, could have received some of the information it got from the Postal Service, where Spanberger was an inspector. But not the entire file, which includes Social Security information, medical and criminal histories, past employment information and much, much more.

Spanberger’s campaign wants the CLF to destroy any copies of the SF-86 form in its possession and is considering “all legal remedies” if the group does not comply.

On the press call, Price said the episode smacked of “political vengeance” and “retribution” from the Trump administration and called on Congress to investigate.

That may be a very big leap, considering the White House has shown little to no interest in the 7th District race.

Price admitted the release could have been a “clerical error,” though he added that was “difficult to believe.”

Except it might be the true, because the Postal Service took responsibility for the release, called it an “unfortunate error” and requested Spanberber’s file be returned.

The Postal Service also said there may have been additional incidents similar to Spanberger’s in which a “small number of additional requests for information from personnel files were improperly processed.”

The big question is whether any of this changes the complexion of the 7th District race.

On balance, probably not. At least not yet.

One big question is how both America Rising and the CLF handled the information once it was in their hands.

Did they understand what they had? These aren’t political naïfs, so it’s hard to give either group a pass on that score. Worse, they shopped the document. Fair game if they had received a redacted copy. But the full form? Nope — that’s a foul, and they have no excuse for it.

Does any of this blow back on Brat, the incumbent?

The Post’s Laura Vozzella reported Brat’s campaign has no comment on the story — exactly the response it should have given.

But the story likely won’t help Brat in the Richmond suburbs, where he was always going to face a rough go on Election Day.

Yet because the CFL is pushing Spanberger’s teaching stint at the Islamic Saudi Academy — also dubbed “Terror High” because some academy students went off to join al-Qaeda — it might help Brat, at the margins, in the more rural, more Republican parts of the District.

And it’s at the margins where this race will be decided.

Getting to the bottom of it all may have to wait a while. House Oversight Committee members Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) have asked the Postal Service’s inspector general to investigate the matter. Such investigations take time.

But if the IG report, like the initial FOIA request itself, appears in record time, giving us a complete timeline of who did what and why, then we just might have a genuine scandal to round out the race.


Norman Leahy is a political reporter for RealClear Investigations and weekly commentator on WRVA radio.

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All Opinions Are Local

The case of the unredacted Spanberger file

By Norman Leahy

August 30, 2018 at 2:32 PM

Abigail Spanberger, center, at her campaign headquarters in May in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Virginia’s 7th Congressional District race between Rep. Dave Brat (R) and Abigail Spanberger (D) has offered up a classic example of how a blunder can change the narrative of a close race. The Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund was caught shopping Spanberger’s unredacted government background files (officially known as an SF-86) to the press.

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