By Susan Smith Richardson and Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity
This weekend, emails about Ukraine military aid released to the Center for Public Integrity triggered a new round of conversations about the timeline of the White House’s decision to halt the aid, the issue at the heart of President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
The documents from the Pentagon and the White House Office of Management and Budget were riddled with blacked-out paragraphs, hiding what the administration argues is sensitive information. But there was enough information in the emails to kick-start demands for an unredacted version of the documents to be shared with the public, including Congress, which had not seen them.
The public cannot hold elected officials accountable in a culture of information blackout. That’s why Public Integrity filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to get the Ukraine documents. Americans should know about a moment destined for the history books.
On Sunday, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on the administration to release unredacted versions of the emails. “Until we hear from the witnesses, until we get the documents, the American people will correctly assume that those blocking their testimony were aiding and abetting a cover-up, plain and simple,” Schumer said. He reinforced the point in a “Dear Colleague” letter Monday.
The Ukraine documents, however, are not a partisan issue. They’re a public concern.
A July 25 email about the freeze on aid sparked much of the media conversation. As we reported, “The email includes a written instruction that the Pentagon ‘please hold off on’ distribution of the funds and says that ‘given the sensitive nature of the request’ the information should be ‘closely held.’’’ The email was sent 91 minutes after the end of the now-infamous call between Trump and Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky. The timing may have been coincidental given that the aid was held up by Trump earlier that month, but without access to a clean version of the emails we have zero context about what officials were thinking and doing.
Public Integrity’s research editor and FOIA attorney, Peter Newbatt Smith, made clear the stakes for the nation when we won our legal fight for the documents on Nov. 25. In her order, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly agreed that “this is not an ordinary FOIA case,” given that impeachment proceedings were then under way in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers, she wrote, were delving into “the same subject matter as the documents requested by [Public Integrity]. As such, the requested documents are sought in order to inform the public on a matter of extreme national concern.”
Judge Kollar-Kotelly told the Pentagon to release the documents in two tranches: one on Dec. 12 and the other on Dec. 20. The first tranche was so heavily redacted – on government claims that the blacked-out material was “sensitive” and “privileged”— that we asked for relief from the court the next day. The second tranche was slightly more illuminating—it included the “91-minute” email—but still loaded with redactions.
We argued to the judge that much of the redacted text “appears on its face to be factual information, rather than deliberative material” that doesn’t have to be disclosed under FOIA. She’ll receive briefs from the parties after the first of the year; we expect a ruling in March, by which time Trump may have faced a Senate impeachment trial.
The ripple caused by the Dec. 20 emails—not only among pundits and politicians, but also among citizens who emailed us and followed us on social media—demonstrates the hunger for more knowledge about the events of last summer. At a time when local newspapers are struggling and misinformation is widespread, access to reliable information is the thread that keeps our democracy intact.
Information is currency in our democracy. And access to information is power. When the public and the press are denied information, we are poorer as a nation.
Our fight over the Ukraine documents means taking on a president. But it just as easily could be a mayor, a city council member, a county commissioner or a school board president anywhere in America.
After an interview Sunday morning with Jeff Smith, Public Integrity’s national security editor, MSNBC host Joy Reid said, “Thank God for the Freedom of Information Act.”
Susan Smith Richardson is CEO and Jim Morris is executive editor of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, non-partisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.