Watchdog: Clinton email responses 'inaccurate and incomplete'

Watchdog: Clinton email responses 'inaccurate and incomplete'
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The State Department has been providing “inaccurate and incomplete” responses to requests for emails and other documents involving former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE, a watchdog says in a new report released Thursday.

The 29-page IG report says the leadership of the State Department “has not played a meaningful role in overseeing or reviewing the quality” of the responses to requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

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As a result, requests from organizations such as The Associated Press, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Judicial Watch have been mishandled in various ways, the IG said. 

In one example, CREW asked for records in 2012 that would show the number of email accounts held by then-Secretary Clinton. While senior staffers at the department regularly corresponded with her on her private account and her chief of staff was made aware of the request, the State Department replied that there were “no records responsive” to the query.  

The response to CREW came in May 2013 — three months after Clinton had left office.

At other times, the IG said, media organizations have put in nearly identical requests for documents, only to receive different sets of records in response.

In 2015, Clinton’s use of a private email server emerged as a flashpoint in the presidential race, with Republicans using it to attack her candidacy. A federal court judge ordered the State Department to release 55,000 pages of Clinton’s emails last May as a result of a lawsuit filed by Vice News. 

“The Department had a preexisting process in place to handle the tens of thousands of requests it received annually, and that established process was followed by the Secretary and her staff throughout her tenure,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon told The Washington Post.

The IG said it has a separate report forthcoming on the “preservation requirements” that apply to former and current secretaries of State and the department’s “efforts to recover federal records from personal accounts.”

The latest report, however, notes that although FOIA workers have no way to independently check the personal emails of staff to see if it is responsive to a request, employees using personal email to conduct official business are required by law to forward or copy those messages to their department accounts within 20 days. 

The request from CREW regarding Clinton’s email addresses came in the wake of revelations that then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson had used a private email address and alias.

The State Department had come under fire from private organizations and members of Congress for how it has responded to document requests, including for what information it chooses to redact and the length of time it takes to provide the documents.

“The Department is committed to transparency, and the issues addressed in this report have the full attention of Secretary Kerry and the Department’s senior staff,” said State Department Spokesman John Kirby in a statement. “We know we must continue to improve our FOIA responsiveness and are taking additional steps to do so.” 

In September, Kerry named Ambassador Janice Jacobs as a transparency coordinator, tasked with overseeing the department’s document preservation and transparency systems — not least of which included managing the release of the mass files of Clinton emails.

Jacobs said she agrees with the IG’s report’s recommendations and suports an “accountability framework” for the department that includes updated “processes, roles, standards, and metrics to help ensure that important legal, administrative, evidential, and historical information requirements of the department are met.”

The IG report criticized the State Department’s process for FOIA requests, characterizing it as archaic and at times out of step the law. The department, according to the IG, often fails to meet the requirement that people be informed about delays in processing FOIA requests. 

The Hill has received FOIA confirmation letters from the State Department that were hand-written. 

The IG report found that 10 of the 23 pending document requests relating to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left office in 2005, are at least five years old. There have been a total of 99 FOIA requests for documents involving Powell, according to the report. 

Even for simple requests, the report says, the department has not responded to requesters within the required 20-day timeframe. Throughout the rest of the federal government, complex FOIA requests took an average of about 119 days to process. The State Department, meanwhile, took an average of 535 days to process them.

“While the volume of State Freedom of Information Act requests has tripled since 2008, our resources to respond have not kept pace,” Kirby said in his emailed statement. “The Department has accepted all four of the Inspector General’s recommendations, and we are taking steps to address each of them. We remain committed not only to transparency but to making our efforts in that regard as efficient as possible.” 

Joyce Barr, the State Department’s assistant secretary for administration, said that its fiscal year 2017 budget request includes funding for two additional permanent positions and the continued funding for 50 temporary workers to help process FOIA requests.

Following the release of the report, Democratic Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle McConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Nielsen acknowledges Trump used 'tough language' in immigration meeting MORE (Vt.) used it to tout legislation aimed at improving the FOIA process governmentwide.

"Unfortunately, today’s report confirms what many FOIA practitioners have long known – that systemic problems within the State Department to respond to requests have existed for decades, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations, and have denied the public timely access to information," Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "I hope that rather than just playing political games with the report Republican leaders in Congress will finally allow the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act to pass this year."

 

- This post was updated at 1:05 p.m.