Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, confronted Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra about the unredacted emails from former National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony Fauci regarding the origins of COVID-19.
Johnson confronted Becerra during Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing on President Biden’s budget request for HHS.
The Wisconsin Republican asked Becerra whether he believes it is important to "understand how the coronavirus originated," to which Becerra responded "absolutely."
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Johnson continued his line of questioning of the HHS secretary, asking Becerra if an employee in his department that is "spearheading the investigation" into COVID’s origins.
Becerra responded that the department’s inspector general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) are "doing a scrub."
"We’re all trying to get as much information," Becerra said. "The difficulty is that we’re not getting a lot of cooperation from some of the sources externally that could probably give us a better understanding."
"Well, let’s talk about a lack of cooperation, because I’d say the same thing is true in terms of cooperation out of the agencies," Johnson interjected, asking Becerra if he believes the public has "a right to know" how the government is spending their tax dollars "and how they’re operating."
Becerra answered in the affirmative, saying the "public does have a right to know."
Johnson noted there are "two primary methods for that:" Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and "congressional oversight."
"Would you agree that FOIA is generally subjected to more redactions than congressional oversight would be?" Johnson asked.
"I wouldn’t say that, but we do have to be careful of what goes into the public domain with respecting confidentiality," Becerra responded.
"I understand, there’re some exceptions that are very explicit out there. A lot of them make sense," Johnson interjected again. "But I would argue, as many people do, that congressional oversight really is not subject to those same redactions, particularly when we have security clearances and we can take a look at classified information that is appropriately redacted under FOIA."
"Let me give you a couple of examples," Johnson continued, whipping out a packet of documents from a 2021 court-ordered FOIA request of "4,000 pages of documents, primarily emails of Anthony Fauci."
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Johnson said that "five members" of the Senate Homeland Security Committee asked for the unredacted documents and pointed to a law requiring the turnover of unredacted documents.
The Wisconsin Republican said he and his colleagues dropped the number of requested pages to 400, received only 350 pages, and asked for the final 50 pages "for over a year."
"This is what the 50 pages look like," Johnson said, holding up and flipping through the almost completely redacted documents.
"I’m asking you: will you commit today to provide our oversight… will you commit to provide us the last 50 pages of communications between Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, David Ferrar, as it relates to the origins of the coronavirus. Will you commit to that?" he asked.
"Senator, I absolutely will commit to make sure we follow up with you on your request to get some of that information," Becerra responded. "Again, this is in compliance with the law that you receive the information. I don’t know what particular statute with regard to disclosure was applied here, but you are absolutely entitled to the information that, by law, a member of the Senate or the House—"
Johnson interjected a third time, accusing Becerra of "not complying with the law" because his agency is "redacting things" between agencies and organizations outside federal agencies when requested by Senate offices.
"Again, these redactions are not complying with the law," Johnson said. "We will follow up with you. I expect to see the unredacted 50 pages soon."
"We complied with the law, senator," Becerra claimed. "But we absolutely will make sure we follow up with you."