Issa says interview shows lack of transparency in Obama’s White House

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is taking aim at the Obama administration’s level of transparency by pointing to a recent interview with a career Homeland Security official that raises questions about whether it has increased the amount of information it releases. 

William Holzerland, the Homeland Security official, told Republican and Democratic staff on Issa’s Oversight and Government Reform panel earlier this month that it was difficult to assess whether more information was being disclosed by President Obama than by former President George W. Bush.

“All in all, I would say no, there is not more transparency,” he said in the interview. “We would have to go line by line, page by page, through 138,000 requests' worth of paper or other electronic records in order for me to say that we have done more. But I would say, on balance, I see little difference.”

Issa, the chairman of the Oversight panel, has scheduled a hearing Thursday on the Department of Homeland Security’s openness, where he is expected to make a point of Holzerland's interview. Lawmakers will hear testimony from two political appointees from the DHS privacy office.

Issa’s office, which provided The Hill with an excerpt of the interview, has been pursuing the issue of whether the DHS’s privacy office has allowed political appointees to influence the disclosure of information required for release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Holzerland, the DHS associate director for disclosure policy and FOIA program development, said part of the difficulty in characterizing whether the administration has become more transparent revolves around how exemptions of information are tallied.

For example, he said, the department may redact five sentences or one sentence from a document, but the agency’s annual report only states that a redaction was made and does not indicate the number of sentences that were redacted. For that reason the Obama administration may be redacting less sentences, but the number of overall redactions may appear to be the same as in previous years.

One of Obama’s first actions upon taking office was to issue two memos to agency heads committing the administration to an “unprecedented level of openness in government” and emphasizing the importance of the FOIA process.

A spokeswoman for the department indicated that it has lived up to Obama’s promises, saying that the backlog of FOIA requests had been significantly reduced and that more requests were processed than received last year.

“This administration has made significant progress in both responsive and proactive disclosures,” said Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman.

“Specific to FOIA, we have reduced the FOIA backlog by 84 percent, and processed more than 138,000 FOIA requests in the past year — the most of any federal agency — and substantially reduced the amount of time it takes to process FOIA requests, from 240 days to 95."

When Issa took over control of the committee in January of this year, his first major request for documents was for DHS to turn over thousands of copies of records and emails between agency officials. But Issa was not satisfied with DHS’s response, and last month he subpoenaed two of the department’s career employees, forcing them to give transcribed interviews before the committee.

DHS officials have repeatedly stated their willingness to cooperate with his requests, pointing to the thousands of documents the department has turned over to the committee so far and the more than 20 staff members — 15 lawyers and at least six others — who are dedicated to fulfilling his requests.

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

One month later, Issa and Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley renews complaints about History Channel Republicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos MORE of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, requested that the inspectors general from nearly 30 agencies investigate what limitations, if any, FOIA offices in the various departments were placing on the information requests.

On Wednesday, the DHS inspector general’s report was obtained by The Associated Press, which found that political appointees created delays in the privacy office’s response time.  

“While the department has a legitimate need to be aware of media inquiries, we are not persuaded that delaying a FOIA release so that officials can prepare for expected inquiries is the best public policy,” the report states. “The problem is that some of these inquiries unnecessarily delayed the final issuance of some FOIA responses.”