House panel grills Homeland Security officials about FOIA delays
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress objected yesterday to the Homeland Security Department’s now-rescinded practice of requiring secretive reviews by political advisers of hundreds of requests for government files under the Freedom of Information Act. The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said the process “reeks of a Nixonian enemies list” and was unacceptable.
The senior official in charge of submitting files for the reviews, Mary Ellen Callahan, acknowledged there had been “management challenges” in the program and said the political scrutiny “at times took longer than anticipated.” But Callahan deflected suggestions by the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that the process injected political considerations into decisions about federal records the government was turning over to journalists, watchdog groups or even members of Congress.
“At no point during this awareness review process did anyone other than a career FOIA professional or an attorney in the office of the general counsel make a substantive change to a proposed FOIA release or a substantive determination regarding what should be released or redacted,” Callahan testified yesterday during a hearing before the oversight committee.
Democrats vigorously defended the department and, by extension, the Obama administration. The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said that Issa’s “extreme accusations are unsubstantiated.”
Another Democrat, John F. Tierney of Massachusetts, pointed to posters in the hearing room with censored government emails that featured prominently in a 153-page investigative report by Republicans and said: “I see nothing but pure politics and nonsense up there.” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said the posters were “propagandist.”
The congressional investigation into government transparency under President Barack Obama was among the earliest by Republicans since they won control of the House and targeted one of the first pledges Obama made after he moved into the White House. The partisan back-and-forth set the tone for future interactions between the White House and Capitol Hill.
The Homeland Security Department abandoned its practice of requiring approval by political appointees before some information could be released after the AP investigated the program last year. Since July, political advisers have been afforded three business days to object to the release of information that otherwise could be withheld under nine narrow provisions in the law protecting national security, privacy or confidential decision-making. If there are no objections, the records can be released.
Issa said the mandatory political vetting of records was improper. He said requiring approval of requests from journalists and watchdog groups “reeks of a Nixonian enemies list,” and said “this committee will not tolerate it.” He said some information that was censored in government files should have been released, and he said delays resulting from the reviews of up to three months were unacceptable.
Callahan acknowledged that such delays “did not meet my standards.”
The top lawyer at the Homeland Security Department, Ivan Fong, said parts of an investigative report by Issa’s Republican staff were “irresponsible” and made him indignant. The report accused the department of “administrative incompetence, illegal politicization and official obstruction.”
The report said a department lawyer, Reid Cox, tried to walk out of an interview with congressional investigators this month with copies of emails the committee had obtained inside his bag. Cox was instructed by Republican and Democratic congressional staffers to leave the material, but he responded, “How about I take the exhibits, and you call me?”
Cummings cited results of a one-year inquiry by the Homeland Security inspector general that found no evidence that political advisers prohibited federal records from being disclosed. The report also concluded that the advisers “had little to contribute” and caused unnecessary delays that violated deadlines under the law.
This week, Callahan reduced the period for political advisers to review government files to one business day. But the inspector general said even the new, speedier process “is not required by FOIA and seems inconsistent” with the Obama administration’s instructions prohibiting unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles under the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the previous system in place, no files could be released to reporters, watchdog groups or even members of Congress without specific approval by Napolitano’s political advisers. The inspector general called it “unprecedented involvement in the FOIA process.”
The AP revealed the political vetting last summer based on nearly 1,000 pages of censored internal e-mails it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The emails showed that AP’s requests for government files about terrorist plots, Napolitano’s speeches, funding for border crossings, the Gulf oil spill — and even AP’s investigation of the FOIA program — were subject to political reviews.
“Is AP on your enemies list?” Issa asked Callahan.
Callahan said no.
The AP protested last year that the emails it received had been improperly censored, but the Homeland Security Department never responded to its formal appeal. The inspector general said censoring of some passages “undoubtedly were appropriate” but added: “We are concerned that certain statements may have been withheld from the AP release merely to avoid embarrassment to the department, which is not appropriate.”
The censored passages showed that DHS career staff described the unusual political vetting as “meddling,” “nuts” and “bananas!”
“We can’t actually explain,” Issa said, “why ‘bananas’ gets redacted.”