Under pressure, the Obama administration reversed course Monday and released full transcripts of the 911 calls made by Orlando shooter to police during his June 12 shooting rampage at a gay nightclub.
“Unfortunately, the unreleased portions of the transcript that named the terrorist organizations and leaders have caused an unnecessary distraction from the hard work that the FBI and our law enforcement partners have been doing to investigate this heinous crime,” the FBI said in a statement Monday afternoon.
The Justice Department came under fire Monday after initially releasing edited transcripts that had removed references to the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS and ISIL.
House Speaker Paul Ryan had immediately called on President Barack Obama to reverse the Justice Department’s decision.
“This should have never been an issue in the first place,” Ryan, R-Wis., said after the full transcript was released. “The attempt to selectively edit the record reflects a broader, more serious problem: this administration’s continued attempt to downplay and distract from the threat of radical Islamist extremism. This is unacceptable. To defeat terrorism, we have to be clear-eyed about whom we’re fighting.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Sunday that the federal government edited the transcripts so as to not further the shooter’s propaganda and to spare victims and families more pain.
“What we’re not going to do is further proclaim this man’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups, and further his propaganda,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.
In conversations with police, Orlando shooter Omar Mateen called himself an Islamic soldier and refused to cooperate with hostage negotiators.
Just before the transcripts were released Monday, Arthur Bentley III, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said “redactions have been made to avoid re-victimizing those who were in the Pulse nightclub during the early morning hours of June 12th.”
In many other cases of mass shootings, 911 calls and transcripts were released unredacted, though in some cases the release followed a lawsuit.
Transcripts were released in the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015. In Charleston, South Carolina, a judge released transcripts of 911 calls in the shooting of a historic black church last year after initially withholding them because of concerns about the shooter’s trial and the victims’ privacy.
The city of Orlando has declined to release any part of Mateen’s 911 calls. However, it gave copies of them to the FBI.
“Nothing you are telling me is surprising to me,” said Lucy Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who now serves as dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. Dalglish said federal law applies to the copies once the FBI receives it, and that there were several exemptions that Lynch could cite to withhold or edit the transcripts. “You have a much better chance of getting this if the state is controlling it,” she said.
Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott had blasted the decision earlier Monday without mentioning Orlando’s refusal to release the 911 calls.
“I have gone to funerals. I’ve sat down and cried with the parents. I’ve gone and visited individuals in the hospitals. They are grieving,” Scott told FOX News. “Now, they want answers. If it was my family, I would want answers. We all would like answers. She should release everything that doesn’t impact the investigation. I can understand if it impacted the investigation, until this is finished, I get that. But she is not saying that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. We have to get serious about destroying ISIS.”
Media organizations, including the Miami Herald, which is owned by McClatchy, have submitted public records requests to Orlando for the 911 calls. Florida’s open records laws are some of the nation’s most aggressive at requiring disclosure.
“They are recorded in Florida,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida group that pushes for transparency. “They are public records in Florida.”
Petersen said the city has refused to release transcripts, citing two of the laws’ exemptions: they are part of an active criminal investigation and the recordings depict a person being killed. Petersen said neither is applicable in this case.
When asked about the redaction, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the decision was “made solely by Department of Justice and FBI officials,” rather than the White House, which feels that it “should not interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”
The Justice Department and FBI made the decision “consistent with their need to be as transparent as possible about the investigation but also to make sure that they could advance the investigation by eliciting additional information about the suspect from the public,” Earnest said.
Eleanor Mueller and Maggie Ybarra in Washington contributed.