Thank you to everyone who can’t redact documents properly

January 10, 2019

On Tuesday, lawyers for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort filed an official response to a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team that said Manafort lied to prosecutors after agreeing to cooperate with them. In their response, Manafort’s lawyers argued that their client “provided complete and truthful information to the best of his ability.” Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance in the document, until Guardian reporter Jon Swaine noticed that Manafort’s legal team didn’t redact its filing properly. All he had to do was copy and paste some of the redacted text—which is covered by thick black bars—into a new document, and the redactions magically disappeared. This likely happened because someone either drew over the unwanted text with a black highlighter tool in Microsoft Word, or used Adobe Acrobat’s redaction tools, but forgot to merge them with the original document.

The formerly secret sections include details about meetings Manafort had with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian man the FBI believes may be a member of a Russian intelligence agency unit connected with the hacking of the Democratic National Congress’s email server. Thanks to whoever failed to understand how redaction works, we now know that Manafort’s lawyers admit Trump’s former campaign manager may have discussed the possibility of a Ukraine peace plan with Kilimnik on more than one occasion, something he previously denied. And, according to the document, Manafort also acknowledges having met up with Kilimnik after being told the Russian agent happened to be in Madrid at the same time as Manafort. His lawyers say in the unredacted section that these events “simply were not at the forefront of Mr. Manafort’s mind during the period at issue,” which is why he appeared to have lied about them.

“These occurrences happened during a period when Mr. Manafort was managing a US presidential campaign. It is not surprising at all that Mr. Manafort was unable to recall specific details prior to having his recollection refreshed,” his lawyers wrote in the unredacted section, apparently under the impression that people running US presidential campaigns meet with possible Russian intelligence agents all the time. Manafort’s team made what amounts to the same argument in reference to Mueller’s claim that Manafort lied about having shared US polling data with Kilimnik during some of these meetings. “The same is true with regard to the government’s allegation that Mr. Manafort lied about sharing polling data with Mr. Kilimnik related to the 2016 presidential campaign,” they said. In other words, he forgot because he was so busy, not because he was trying to hide anything.

Whatever Mueller and his team think of Manafort’s defense, the unredacted document reinforces how close Manafort’s relationship with Kilimnik was, and that—in particular the sharing of polling data—is going to add fuel to the fire for those who see his actions as part of a larger attempt to get Russian assistance to swing the election. Kilimnik worked for Manafort’s consulting firm starting in 2005, but he is also believed to be a Russian asset, and has been charged with helping Manafort obstruct the Mueller investigation. The Washington Post has reported that Manafort wrote to Kilimnik during the campaign and told him he hoped his position as campaign manager would help him get out of debt, and he also asked Kilimnik to share information about the campaign with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, someone to whom Manafort reportedly owes as much as $17 million.

The unredacted Manafort document provides plenty of fodder for anyone who believes the Trump campaign was hooked up with the Russians in a variety of ways. But it also reinforces just how difficult it is to keep this kind of information secret in a digital age. In the past, redacting a document involved actual black ink, but the digital kind is a lot more tricky—and that’s bad for anyone who is trying to keep certain facts classified, but good for journalists who are trying to shed light on the behavior of bad actors both inside the government and elsewhere.

Here’s more on the dangers of not taking redaction seriously:

  • Facebook Fail: In November, documents submitted in a court case between the social network and a bikini-photo app called Six4Three were defectively redacted, which was first noticed by The Wall Street Journal. Cutting and pasting the blacked-out parts into a new document revealed—among other things—that Facebook had at one time considered selling access to user data for as much as $250,000 per company.
  • Proud Boys Fail: Also in November, the right-wing white nationalist group known as the Proud Boys—whose founder and former leader, Gavin McInnes, recently stepped down after a violent incident in New York involving the group—published a set of bylaws for the organization that included a failed attempt to redact the names of its new leadership.
  • Broward County Fail: In August, a judge in Broward County, Florida released a report about the school board’s investigation into how it handled Nikolas Cruz, who later shot and killed 17 students in Parkland. The report was heavily redacted, but a South Florida Sun Sentinel reader soon noticed that if you copied the document into Microsoft Word, the redactions ceased to exist. The paper later published the unredacted information.
  • Postal Service Fail: Also in August, the United States Postal Service responded to a FOIA request for information on a former employee, Abigail Spanberger, who was running for a Democratic congressional seat. The service sent not only public documents about Spanberger, a former CIA officer, but also her unredacted federal security clearance application, including her health information and Social Security number.
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Other notable stories:

  • Researchers from New York University and Princeton University have published a study looking at the sharing on Facebook of “fake news” from a number of high-profile websites that publish such material, and found a majority of the sharing came from older users and those who identified as conservative. Users over 65 shared seven times as many pieces of misinformation as the youngest age group.
  • Jennifer Robison writes for CJR about how, even as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, a culture of sexual harassment prevailed at the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, which was acquired in 2015 by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Meanwhile, the editor of The Nevada Independent wrote an editorial saying he wanted to publish Robison’s reporting, but couldn’t take the risk that Adelson might sue.
  • The Associated Press admitted that a tweet it sent out about Trump’s speech on Tuesday “could have done a better job” of explaining the background to the government shutdown. The agency’s post was widely ridiculed as an example of “both sides-ism,” since it appeared to blame the Democrats for not acceding to Trump’s demands.
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says Trump’s Oval Office address was “a pure propaganda opportunity” and that broadcast networks shouldn’t allow it next time. Fact-checkers countered the speech with more accurate information both before and afterward, she says, but “the lies are spread; the damage is done.”
  • Google is fighting attempts by the French government to force the search engine to remove articles under Europe’s “right to be forgotten law,” not just from French search results but from all the company’s results globally. An adviser to the European Union is expected to give an opinion on the case today.
  • Pelin Unker, a Turkish journalist and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has been sentenced to more than a year in jail for her work on the Paradise Papers, an investigation into the use of offshore bank accounts by wealthy individuals, including a former Turkish prime minister.
  • According to a report from BuzzFeed News, staffers at the Murdoch-owned British newspaper The Sun are concerned that a desire to get the attention of The Drudge Report—which drives huge amounts of traffic with its links—is forcing the newspaper to adopt a more right-wing perspective on UK politics.
  • Thanks to a donation from Facebook, a group of fact-checking entities have launched a legal resource fund called the Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative. The project is backed by the Media Legal Defence Initiative, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the International Fact-Checking Network.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.