The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mad Libs, but for democracy: The timeless intrigue of redactions

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On Oct. 26, 1918, a U.S. soldier stationed in Europe sat down with a gray pencil to compose a letter to his wife, Clara. It arrived eventually, minus a word. “We are billeted in a little [redacted] town,” wrote John Kennelly, a private first class. His descriptor was erased by a military censor. It was a simple, surgical excision on behalf of a powerful government, which had love letters to deliver but secrets to keep.

Last month, 100 years later, a former Marine Corps captain sent his own letter through official channels, to the attorney general. It’s at least 300 pages longer than Pfc. Kennelly’s — and probably lacks his amorous sign-off (“With Worlds of Love”) — but the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is now enduring similar censoring at the Justice Department, with input from Mueller’s office. This week officials are sleuthing for words to strike, in the name of national security or privacy, so that it’s fit for the rest of us to see.

Whatever we get from them will not be enough. Or it may be too much. Redactions are a Rorschach test, with black bars instead of blots. Some people will see a conspiracy to block reality. Some will see a surrender to a witch hunt. Either way, the redactions will symbolize the ongoing tug-of-war between discretion and truth, between a government that knows what we don’t need to know and a citizenry that desires the whole story.

That desire is inflamed after two years of theorizing about the Mueller report. Redactions “will only fuel suspicions,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) Wednesday to Attorney General William P. Barr, who testified that the report will be released with four categories of redactions, color-coded and explained for skeptics.

I’m “going to try to be as transparent as possible,” Barr stated.

This means we’re going to get something in between: a redacted document, scabbed by blemishes in need of examination.

“I think it’s going to be more disappointing than not, and frustrating to many,” says D.C. attorney Mark S. Zaid, who handles cases involving national security and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “I’m hoping they’re not going to have heavy blocks of redactions.”

But he knows that’s possible. Zaid once sued the government for records related to the death of Princess Diana and the FBI surrendered reams of material. Zaid was thrilled, until he opened the boxes. Two thousand pages of redactions. Every page, blacked out.

“I have always interpreted that was done on purpose,” Zaid says, “to say, ‘Mark, screw off.’ I still laugh about it.”

It’s a funny word, “redaction.” It exudes both boredom and intrigue. The original meaning of “redact,” in the 15th century, was “organize” or “make ready for publication,” according to William Safire. Sometime in the 1800s it began to mean “edit.” Now it means to remove. Poof.

“By dramatizing the word or sentence cut out with a glaring black line,” Safire wrote in 2007, “a redaction fairly cries out, ‘Catch me if you can!’”

For a judgment so definite, the act of redacting is often subjective.

“The problem is that, in the end, this is not a scientific process,” says former Defense secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, and “the poor sons of bitches that have to make those judgments are the ones that take the heat for it.”

In most cases they are FOIA officers, who wrangle public requests for government information. Each day, around the country, they scrub documents of sensitive material. They work with Adobe software or a computer program called FOIAXpress, though occasionally they rely on tools of yore: black markers and X-ACTO knives.

“When it was paper pages, in some regards it was a bit easier,” says J. William Leonard, who 40 years ago sanitized documents for the Defense Department. “But if you didn’t do it right — if you weren’t exact with your knife, or your marker was running dry — people could still glean what the withheld information was.”

And people can still do that in the digital age. In 2003 the Department of Justice released a 186-page report on its hiring practices, and half of it was blacked out; an anthologist in Arizona wiped the redactions electronically. In 2004 a graduate student in Ireland cracked a redacted word in a memo to George W. Bush by using a digital dictionary and text-analysis software. In January, lawyers for Paul Manafort filed a document whose redactions could be revealed by highlighting the black bars, copying the underlying material, and pasting it elsewhere.

“Thank you to everyone who can’t redact documents properly,” went an ensuing headline on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review.

American leaders brag about transparency but their agencies historically have cultivated a “culture of caution” in matters of classification, “with every incentive to avoid risk rather than manage it,” according to a 2012 report from the Public Interest Declassification Board. By the turn of last century at least 1.5 billion documents over 25 years old were kept from the public because of national security concerns; every year agencies heave petabytes of classified information into a metaphysical vault. Classification cost the federal government $18.49 billion in fiscal year 2017 alone.

Redactions can be cosmetic, or historic. The wide streak of black marker smeared across the subject line of a 1969 letter from J. Edgar Hoover to the Atomic Energy Commission. The 14 blank pages of a 2002 Pentagon assessment of Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program. History’s missing puzzle pieces.

Redactions can be vital, for masking private information such as Social Security numbers or protecting intelligence sources. And for all it obscures, a redaction is the midwife of revelation.

“It’s a paradoxical undertaking because, in the case of declassified documents, the redactions make it possible to publicly release the unredacted portions,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “So it’s kind of a bargain.”

But redactions can be reckless or useless. When 19,045 documents related to the John F. Kennedy assassination were released last year, Nate Jones of the National Security Archive was struck by the banality of the information the government had insisted on keeping secret for years. To him it was emblematic of a government that, even in the present day, puts more trust in itself than its citizens.

“I see a lot of these over-redactions and unnecessary secrecy” as director of the FOIA project for the archive, Jones says, “and I see a government bureaucracy that often holds the public in disdain.”

When former counterintelligence officer Mark Fallon gave a manuscript of his book to the Defense Department for a legally mandated review, it came back to him with more than 100 actual redactions. Fallon and his publisher decided to print the black bars, to show readers how the government uses redactions to cloak embarrassment or manipulate a narrative — in this case, Fallon’s argument that the George W. Bush administration conspired to torture terrorism suspects and violate human rights.

“They redacted things that were part of congressional testimony — it’s already out there in the public domain,” Fallon says. “To me that’s not protecting national security information. That’s protecting a narrative and a political position of an institution that I think is wrong.”

Mueller’s team might have made it easy for the Justice Department by bunching the sensitive material into an appendix, “so that someone later doesn’t have to make Swiss cheese out of it,” says David Kris, a former national security official in the Justice departments of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Regardless, “I’m sure people are burning the midnight oil on this,” says Kris, now founder of Culper Partners consulting firm. In some cases redactions can be “very easy and mechanical, and in other cases it’s very difficult and does require judgment.”

Redactions give people an opportunity to see what they want to see, or avoid seeing what they don’t. When the Mueller report comes out, redactions and all, we will be left with at least one unassailable truth: In 2016, millions of Americans knowingly attempted to elect a presidential candidate whom millions of others regarded with suspicion and disgust, and three years later everyone determined that they had been right all along.