Rep. Issa asks White House to turn over e-mails to Homeland Security officials

The Republican Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says the White House’s response to his first major request for documents and records was inadequate.

As a result, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is refining his request and asking for copies of e-mails between key White House officials. He is also seeking a series of interviews with top-level staff at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of his probe into the Obama administration’s transparency.

Last week, Issa requested that 180 agencies send him records showing how fast they respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He also asked the agencies to explain why some FOIA requests are delayed more than others.

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Issa’s inquiries about the role that political officers at DHS play in the FOIA process stems from a report last year by the Associated Press. The report found that top DHS officials had instructed career employees to turn over sensitive FOIA requests to President Obama’s political advisers before releasing them to the person who had requested them.

In separate letter sent in early January, Issa asked DHS to send him documents relating to the role that political appointees play in reviewing information to be released under the department’s FOIA guidelines.

But in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday, Issa said that DHS’s response to this request contradicted information that he had been given last year in a meeting with DHS’s chief privacy officer Mary Ellen Callahan. 

“[Callahan] assured the staff that political appointees were not inappropriately interfering with the FOIA process,” Issa said in his letter. “In reliance on these statements, I asked my staff to put our inquiry on hold temporarily. During the week of January 10, 2011, my staff obtained material that called into question the statements supplied by the department during the September briefing [with Callahan].”

Issa did not explain in the letter exactly what those discrepancies are. A spokesman for Issa did not immediately return a request for comment. 

An aide with Oversight’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), said Issa had not given their office any of the documents that he referenced in his letter to Napolitano.

In the letter to Napolitano, Issa requested that DHS turn over by noon on Thursday copies of any e-mails received from or sent to White House officials, including correspondence with Norman Eisen, the former special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, and Cabinet Secretary Christopher Lu.

Issa also said he “was disappointed to learn” that less than two weeks ago DHS’s Office of General Counsel instructed “career staff” in the privacy office not to search for documents related to his request. Instead, the staff was told that associate general counsel Joe Maher would be handling the department’s response, according to Issa. 

“This directive is inconsistent with your pledge to identify and produce documents expeditiously, and it raises question about the department’s commitment to the president’s effort to create ‘an unprecedented level of openness in Government’,” Issa said in the letter.

Issa requested that five DHS officials, including Noah Kroloff, the chief of staff to Napolitano, Amy Sclossman, the deputy chief of staff to Napolitano, and Callahan provide the committee with testimony next week about these matters.

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