Oversight Committee subpoenas Homeland Security officials

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight panel has subpoenaed two Obama administration officials in connection with the committee's probe into the White House’s levels of transparency.

Rep. Darrell Issa’s (Calif.) office says it has subpoenaed two career officials who work in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and handle its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.


Issa has asked DHS to send him documents relating to the role political appointees play in reviewing information to be released under the department’s FOIA guidelines. But his office says it has not gotten the level of cooperation that it's sought from DHS, including requests for transcribed interviews from department officials and copies of e-mail correspondence between White House officials.

“Chairman Issa issued the subpoenas for depositions so that the investigation could continue moving forward, and we are expecting DHS to fully cooperate with the committee,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Issa.

DHS officials have previously told Issa’s office that officials strictly adhere to the department’s guidelines when deciding whether to censor the public’s requests for information under FOIA. But a career official within DHS has come forward as a whistleblower with information that contradicts the DHS’s stance, according to a source close to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  

According to a GOP committee aide, “a career official within DHS came to us and provided evidence that called into question the veracity of statements made by DHS officials to the committee."

A spokesman for DHS, Matt Chandler, said the department was working to fulfill Issa's request and was fully cooperating.

“DHS respects the oversight authority of the U.S. Congress and has been cooperating with the committee on this inquiry,” said Chandler. “We are working to expeditiously accommodate their requests and will continue to cooperate.”

Congressional authority gives Issa almost unlimited subpoena power over the administration. In order to fulfill the requests of the Oversight Committee, DHS has diverted more than 20 staff members — 15 lawyers and at least six others — from their previous responsibilities, and has handed over to the committee more than 3,000 documents, according to a DHS official.

Last week Issa spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and pressed her to voluntarily conduct transcribed interviews with the officials the committee has requested, according to Issa’s office. Issa also tried to work with Napolitano to reduce the cost incurred by the department by refining his large request for documents, his office said.

But earlier this week, according to Issa’s office, DHS said it would not conduct transcribed interviews, and instead proposed a series of less formal briefings.

The subpoenas issued for the DHS officials require them to be deposed in less than two weeks. Issa issued his first subpoena to Bank of America last week, seeking information about Countrywide's VIP loan program and whether any public officials received preferential treatment because of their jobs.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, blasted his GOP counterpart for issuing "unilateral subpoenas" without discussing the matter with members of the committee.

“Based on your public statements and the underlying facts, all three subpoenas appear unnecessary at this time and could have been avoided if you had adequately consulted with me and other members of the committee,” he said.

Cummings said he was “dismayed” to see that Issa had signed the subpoena letters before the Republican talked with Napolitano about arranging a series of transcribed interviews.

“Your actions create the impression that your decision had already been made,” said Cummings in his letter.

Cummings has pressed Issa to hold votes on subpoenas in an attempt to rein in the Republican's power. The two men have been arguing about this issue since the new Congress began.

Issa’s inquiries about the role that political officers at DHS play in the FOIA process stem 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.

— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.

— This story was last updated at 6:21 p.m.