30 Years Ago, Barr Misled Congress With False And Misleading Summaries

William P. Barr being sworn in as the 85th Attorney General of the United States.Photo courtesy of the White House

In March of 2019, Attorney General William P. Barr released a four-page summary of the over 300-page report on the two-year investigation into alleged Russian interference with the 2016 election and obstruction of justice allegations in the Trump campaign. His summary was overwhelmingly vague, and his conclusion that the investigation yielded no evidence of the charges was contested by officials who worked on Special Counsel Mueller’s team.

But, according to Just Security, this is not the first time Barr has been under intense scrutiny for potentially misleading or false report summaries. In 1989, when Barr served as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), a memo he wrote summarizing an OLC opinion made national headlines because of its "unusual secrecy" and its conclusion that the FBI is allowed to forcefully abduct individuals in foreign countries without the approval of the respective government.

He refused to give Congress the full legal opinion, instead providing an account that "summarizes the principal conclusions." Yale law school professor Harold Koh commented that Barr's actions were "particularly egregious," and Congress agreed, eventually issuing a subpoena to acquire the full OLC opinion.

Barr refused to release the Office of Legal Counsel's full opinion because his office "provides legal advice throughout the Administration and does it on a confidential basis." But his stance was strange: the new OLC opinion reversed a prior one (a rare occurrence), and the prior opinion had been released to the public in full just four years prior.

Even the president at the time, President George H.W. Bush, said he was "embarrassed" to not know the full OLC opinion. “I’ll have to get back to you with the answer,” he told reporters.

After four years of subpoenas and an entirely new presidential administration, in 1993, the Clinton administration finally made the full OLC opinion public.

Barr's summary omitted key "principle conclusions" to Congress, in addition to containing a variety of misleading details.

His full 1989 opinion concluded that the president could violate the United States Charter, an assertion that legal experts agree is wrong, but, to make matters worse, Barr did not disclose this central conclusion to Congress in his summary.

His summary also did not inform lawmakers that the 1989 full opinion discussed international law. In his written testimony, he said that the full document “is strictly a legal analysis of the FBI’s authority, as a matter of domestic law, to conduct extraterritorial arrests of individuals for violations of U.S. law.”

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