Defying House Procedures, Blackburn’s Delayed Redactions Prompt Ongoing Concerns for Researchers

“My life is at greater risk now than it was before,” one researcher told Rewire. “It’s always something that you think about when you get involved in this type of research, but definitely, Marsha Blackburn doing all this has placed all of us at increased risk.”

Anti-choice activists who could be monitoring the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives' activities were just a click away from obtaining researchers’ names and more details released by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). House GOP / Flickr

This is the first article in a two-part series on the effect Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives is having on the research community. You can read the second piece in the series here.

Researchers who have used fetal tissue in their work had one of their worst fears confirmed earlier this month when documents released by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) disclosed their identities—and jeopardized their privacy, safety, and job security—in her call for a federal abortion inquiry.

At least one of the researchers didn’t know about Blackburn’s U.S. House of Representatives investigation based on widely discredited allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations, let alone that publicly available documents had revealed the individual’s identity, until Rewire made contact. The researcher agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity.

“I found it upsetting,” the researcher said. “The researchers themselves are not accused of any wrongdoing.”

The researcher expressed apprehension about intrusions from anti-choice groups and the media into what has otherwise been life as a private citizen. Potential consequences on current and future employment marked additional matters of concern, even though research involving fetal tissue is legal and heavily regulated.

Rewire attempted to contact 11 of the at least 14 researchers identified in documents Blackburn included as part of her request for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a separate federal investigation. The documents failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information despite past assurances. Some of the phone numbers were still operational; in other instances, an email address was a simple internet search away. Only two researchers returned requests for comment.

Eugene Gu, another researcher named in the documents, agreed to speak on the record. At the end of March, Blackburn subpoenaed Gu’s company, Ganogen, Inc., which uses fetal tissue to research organ transplantation, for a dozen different types of documents. Gu didn’t know about the investigation until STAT, a health and medicine publication, contacted him for an article.

Two U.S. Marshals in April knocked on Gu’s apartment door to deliver the subpoena in what he described to Rewire as a “scary experience.” Since that time, Ganogen has allegedly experienced a marked uptick in anti-choice harassment that Gu initially didn’t realize stemmed from the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives posting the subpoena to the investigation’s website.

“About once a week, I get an email saying that [you’re] killing babies,” along with threats about God’s wrath, he said.

Gu worries that the latest disclosures could make a bad situation worse.

“My life is at greater risk now than it was before,” Gu said. “It’s always something that you think about when you get involved in this type of research, but definitely, Marsha Blackburn doing all this has placed all of us at increased risk.”

Redactions Take Days to Occur

The risk escalated over 48 hours.

Blackburn first gave the documents to Fox News for an exclusive segment that aired May 31, then released a statement the next day linking to more than 80 pages of records accompanying each letter to HHS. Rewire emailed the select panel within hours of Blackburn’s June 1 statement to ask why certain names had not been redacted, as previously promised, and again the morning of June 3 after failing to receive a response.

By mid-day June 3, the New York Times published a condemnation of the select panel’s actions and later linked to Rewire’s reporting. That afternoon, Blackburn’s spokesperson called Rewire and attributed the disclosures to staff error.

The unredacted versions of the documents remained available through at least June 6 at the links sent to reporters in Blackburn’s original statement. The links are no longer active.

Blackburn initially eschewed questions about why she needed the names of individuals from abortion clinics, procurement companies, and laboratories in the first place.

“Madam Chair, will you explain how the names of individual medical or graduate students, researchers, health care providers, and clinic personnel are pertinent to this investigation?” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) asked Blackburn during the panel’s March hearing, which compared fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation.

“No, sir, I am not going to do that,” Blackburn said.

Weeks later, in April, Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson told Rewire that the names would provide a full understanding of what goes into fetal tissue transactions and research. Investigators proposed using pseudonyms to prevent the names of lower-level staff witnesses from appearing in public or in committee publications, the spokesperson said. That same month, Blackburn pledged the panel would “act responsibly with each and every name” in an interview with the conservative Daily Signal.

Blackburn released the researchers’ names amid unprecedented violence directly connected to the deceptively edited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos purporting an illicit trade in fetal tissue. Anti-choice activists who could be monitoring the panel’s activities were just a click away from obtaining researchers’ names and more details.

The possibility is all the more concerning in the context of Blackburn’s June 10 remarks at the faith-based Road to Majority conference. Blackburn issued a conservative call to action, urging the audience to get involved with the investigation into the trafficking of “baby body parts” through the panel’s mailing list—and publicly available documents on the website.

Panel Defies Normal Committee Procedures

A senior House Democratic aide characterized errors of this magnitude as “highly, highly irregular.”

U.S. Senate rules generally preclude committees from releasing materials without a vote or both sides agreeing to do so, the aide said. On the House side, the aide said, each committee follows its own practices, though that doesn’t mean a lesser commitment to privacy.

“All of the House committees recognize that when there is a privacy interest, or in this case, a safety issue, that certainly the information should be safeguarded,” the aide said. “There are routine ways that they safeguard information.”

For example, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) set up a separate viewing room for the CMP videos. Lawmakers had to reserve a time with the committee’s clerk in order to view the videos on the one computer allotted to the majority and the other to the minority, according to a 12-point list of instructions and protections. The committee otherwise stored the original materials in its safe.

The list concluded with a warning: “Members and congressional staff are advised that parties depicted in the materials have expressed privacy and safety concerns regarding the public release of information that may identify them.”

A comparable error occurred in October 2015 when Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), chair of the House’s high-profile Benghazi investigation, accidentally disclosed the name of someone he erroneously claimed was a CIA source on the select committee’s website. After several news outlets reported on the error, Gowdy’s staff redacted the name “almost instantaneously,” to the best of the aide’s recollection.

Not so with Blackburn’s select panel, leading the House aide to cast doubt on the process.

“I can’t judge intent, but it seems almost designed to get the information out there rather than actually protect it,” the aide said.

Blackburn’s select panel did not respond for comment by publication time.

Even now, clues about the researchers’ identities remain embedded in the redacted documents. Staff failed to black out the institution names, an institution’s department, and the types of fetal tissue specimens that individual researchers used in their work. Elsewhere, staff redacted the names, but not the job titles, of several high-ranking officials at Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Such descriptions run counter to standard operating procedure in the House, according to the Democratic aide. Most committees would redact any information that could lead an outsider to figure out the redacted individual’s identity, the aide said. Typically one side consults with the other prior to posting documents with sensitive information on the web, the aide added.

In any event, the researchers’ names are still publicly available from another source—CMP. David Daleiden’s anti-choice front group last year posted unredacted versions of the documents, raising questions about CMP’s relationship with Blackburn and the select panel.