Can we all agree we need more, not less, information about the probe into Russia’s election-sabotage methods?
President Donald Trump can’t seem to decide whether Republican Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation “totally exonerated” him or is “a hit-job by 18 angry Democrats.”
But, whether you agree with the President or with the President, it’s a good day to call for aggressive shrinkage of secrecy in grand jury materials.
Here’s why: Grand jury transcripts are the gold standard for government watchdogs.
We deserve to know every detail of the actions taken by government officials so that we the people can oversee our government, including Mueller’s team.
The reason we need those transcripts is because people have no problem lying to journalists. The inky army is just citizens using, full time, the same First Amendment rights granted to any citizen. We can dig and report, but some government officials lie to us every day without consequence.
They less often lie to a grand jury or its investigators. They know that’s a quick way to land in a federal prison cell sharing a bunk with the President’s campaign manager, or lawyer, or national security advisor, or deputy campaign manager.
In other words, truth is what leaks out of grand jury rooms.
And it’s often a righteous disinfectant, scalding bumblers and sneaks who should face consequences just like any other citizen.
“Grand jury” is a confusing title. A grand jury doesn’t decide innocence or guilt. It’s a panel of citizens that prosecutors must satisfy in order to file certain kinds of charges.
Despite what they think, prosecutors aren’t in charge in the grand jury room.
Citizens are, and that means an investigation can probe people and problems that make career trouble for prosecutors. Too bad. The grand jury can grill investigators, demand more information, and makes sure nobody is above the law.
I confess to great fondness for leaked grand jury documents.
Consider the Ruby Ridge trial, in which white separatist Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris were acquitted of almost all of the many charges brought against them.
Accused of peddling an illegally sawed-off shotgun to an undercover informant, Weaver refused to show up for court. The U.S. Marshals Service spent untold dollars on an elaborate surveillance scheme, triggering an 11-day standoff in the mountains of Idaho in 1992 that started with the death of a U.S. Marshal and led to the deaths of Weaver’s wife and son and the wounding of Weaver and Harris.
I was the lucky reporter to whom a federal court clerk innocently released the entire 1,000-plus page grand jury transcript, months ahead of the trial. Many officials found themselves defending the indefensible.
Standing in the door with her baby, Weaver’s wife was shot dead as her husband and a friend ran for cover. In the grand jury transcript, we learned top FBI executives had given snipers unprecedented (likely illegal) shoot-on-sight orders. Based on false information by people who weren’t on the scene, those orders led straight to the shooting of Vicki Weaver by an FBI sniper-observer team.
To perform its oversight duties, Congress needed to know that FBI Director Louis Freeh’s hand-picked deputy, Larry Potts, was the one who pushed agents far beyond their normal “fire-if-fired upon” code.
If the grand jury transcripts had been locked away, who knows whether Congress would ever have heard what Freeh and Potts had allowed.
I’m not arguing for blanket release of grand jury transcripts and documents, just a restriction on secrecy when government officials are being investigated.
Certainly it is a good thing that when grand juries can’t find enough evidence to file charges, the case is kept secret and a citizen’s reputation is spared.
And, certainly there are investigations of gangsters or billionaire bullies in which witnesses risk retribution for speaking truth about the powerful. Protect them.
But citizen grand jury power is wasted when secrecy rules prevent us from knowing about the actions of elected and appointed officials.
Even when charges aren’t filed, as is the case in some parts of the Mueller investigation, we learn a great deal about the behavior and judgment of those entrusted with government power.
That includes prosecutors. We have every right to review the decisions the Justice Department makes about the findings of grand juries. We can’t do that if we don’t know what they discovered.
Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader.