After several executive agencies in the Biden administration were sued for refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests from conservative advocacy group Citizens United over the White House’s attempt to federalize elections, the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Indian Affairs finally turned over its first batch of requested documents. There’s one problem: More than half of the 54-page document is completely redacted.
“The Biden administration is the least transparent in history, and these absurd redactions are just the latest example. What are they trying to hide from the American people?” Citizens United President David Bossie told The Federalist.
As The Federalist previously reported, in March 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing hundreds of federal agencies to engage in a federal takeover of election administration. It also permitted federal agencies to work with “nonpartisan” third-party entities to get voters registered, yet left-wing dark money group Demos publicly admitted it’s worked with federal agencies, “in close partnership with the ACLU and other allies,” to advance the aims of Biden’s directive.
Such an order set off alarm bells among Republicans and good government groups, reminiscent of the widespread takeover of government election offices by Democratic activists and donors in the blue counties of key swing states during the 2020 presidential election. Through their infiltration of state and local offices, Democrats were able to conduct partisan get-out-the-vote operations and swing the election in then-candidate Biden’s favor. This order is a taxpayer-funded version of that effort, turning federal agencies — including those that dole out federal benefits — into voter registration hubs and partisan get-out-the-vote centers.
Citizens United wanted to find out more about it, which is why last June, it filed FOIA requests with the DOI and State Department seeking email and text messages that mentioned both the executive order and the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in election activities. When the agencies failed to comply, Citizens United sued. On Jan. 31, DOI sent its first round of documents per Citizens United’s request.
But the 54-page PDF sent to Citizens United is mostly redacted, save for logistical emails between White House staff and agency department heads. The plan and implementation scheme for the “Promoting Access to Voting” executive order itself are completely redacted.
In a cover letter sent with the documents, the Biden administration defended the redactions under U.S.C. § 552(b)(5), which allows agencies to withhold information under the “Presidential Communications Privilege” (exists to ensure “the President’s ability to obtain candid and informed opinions from his advisors and to make decisions confidentially”) and the “Deliberative Process Privilege” (“protects the decision-making process of government agencies and encourages the frank exchange of ideas on legal or policy matters”).
But according to Jason Foster, president and founder of Empower Oversight, a transparency and government accountability group that frequently files FOIA requests, these redactions are a prime example of the federal government’s blatant over-redacting and censorship.
“Federal bureaucrats do everything in their power to conceal information from the public,” Foster told The Federalist. “Whether it’s over-classification or improper redactions and stonewalling Freedom of Information Act requests, they instinctively err on the side of hiding information to avoid embarrassment, conceal misconduct, or cover up corruption. It’s up to Congress to reform the FOIA process, and in the meantime, it’s up to independent organizations to sue aggressively to force the federal government to comply with transparency laws.”
While good government groups can sue over improper redactions, this process can usually take about a year to uncover just one document from a series of files, those familiar with the matter said. Now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, however, they have the power to compel the federal government to produce non-redacted versions of requested documents, a Citizens United official told The Federalist.
During the 117th Congress, nine House Republicans wrote a letter to the White House raising concerns about the executive order, specifically regarding the fact that the order supplants the authority of the states to set election law and administer elections under the Constitution. When asked about the Biden administration’s secrecy over its elections directive, Freshman Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., who chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs, echoed her colleague’s sentiments.
“Everyone should have concerns about this executive order and the involvement of any federal agency in our election process,” Hageman told The Federalist. “First and foremost, elections are the constitutional responsibility of the states, not our federal bureaucracy. This is yet another example of the federal government overstepping its authority and infringing upon states’ rights. Even if this order was well intended — and I have serious doubts that it was — it is unconstitutional.”
Hageman emphasized that the White House cannot get away with such extensive redactions of election-related processes.
“Large-scale redactions are not in the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act,” Hageman added. “This is one of the few tools we have to hold our government accountable. Are we to accept that the information is classified to such an extent that the document is unable to be coherently interpreted? Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the federal government cannot be allowed to continue to obscure and obstruct.”
Of particular interest in the 54-page document is a draft letter on page 32 from Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland to White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, formerly President Obama’s national security advisor and “right-hand woman” who is known for her involvement in spying on the Trump campaign in 2015 and lying about it. In that role, she also spread lies about the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, helped Obama staffers target Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and turned a blind eye to the Biden family’s foreign business affairs.
One line in the draft letter reads: “The plan promotes voter registration and voter participation (REDACTED) and the Department’s agency action to achieve these objectives.” The redacted portion might point to a Hatch Act violation, a Citizens United official told The Federalist.
“These documents relating to the Biden White House’s efforts to turn the federal workforce into a partisan voter registration committee must be released to the public in their entirety,” Bossie said. “Congress must investigate this executive order to see if the Biden Administration is violating the Hatch Act on a massive scale.”
When asked why the Interior Department isn’t being transparent with the public about Biden’s federal takeover of elections, the Bureau of Indian Affairs referred The Federalist to the U.S.C. § 552(b)(5) exemptions in the cover letter sent to Citizens United.