Issa report: Release of documents is 'more politicized' now than under Bush

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report on Wednesday that details what he says are attempts by the Obama administration’s political appointees to thwart and delay the release of information. 

The 153-page report, prepared by Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) committee staff, states that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process under President Obama is “less transparent and more politicized” than it was under President George W. Bush. 

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It includes excerpts of testimony before the panel from six officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and pulls from thousands of pages of agency documents and email exchanges that describe how political appointees have delayed responses to FOIA requests.  

“Political appointees do not have a right to stop or delay releases of information through FOIA because they find them embarrassing, inconvenient, or politically sensitive,” Issa said in a statement. “There is no place for this kind of interference in a process designed to create transparency and accountability in government.”

DHS blasted the report and said that the excerpts from the interviews and documents were used selectively to support a false conclusion.  

“While the committee’s report spends a good deal of space making allegations of politicization and obstruction, the facts simply do not support these claims,” said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman with DHS.  

“Ironically, the report itself is full of selective omissions and redactions that appear to have been made to support these allegations.”

In response to Issa’s report, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), released a memo to Democratic staff detailing eight instances that he said debunk Issa's claims that DHS staff unfairly impeded the release of information.

“A review of these documents and interviews does not support Chairman Issa's allegations that DHS withheld information from FOIA requestors for partisan political purposes,” the Democratic memo states. “This review also does not support allegations that requestors received different treatment based on their political affiliation or that DHS officials implemented the FOIA review process to further partisan political objectives.”

Issa has scheduled a hearing for Thursday where lawmakers will hear testimony from two political appointees from the DHS privacy office.

The report asserts that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano oversaw the “illegal politicization” of the agency’s privacy office, which handles FOIA requests, and alleges that DHS tried to interfere with the panel’s eight-month-long investigation into the matter.  

“Secretary Napolitano’s political staff attempted to frustrate the present investigation through official non-cooperation, witness tampering, and the attempted theft of committee documents,” states the report. 

“Indeed, a cloud of administrative incompetence, illegal politicization and official obstruction now overshadows the front-line guarantor of American’s homeland security.”

The IG report, which was obtained by The Hill ahead of its public release, concludes that the DHS FOIA review process was not as efficient as it should be, but also says it did not impede the release of documents.

“After reviewing information and interviewing DHS FOIA experts, we determined that the significant request review process … did not prohibit the eventual release of information,” the IG report said. “However, the intervention of the Office of the Secretary created inefficiencies.”

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.

Kudwa said that DHS 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,” she said.

“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."

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

According to an interview provided to the committee last August, DHS’s chief privacy officer Mary Ellen Callahan said that “no political staff member makes decisions about the processing of a FOIA request.”

But Wednesday’s report claims to show through interviews, internal emails and documents how political appointees in DHS posed questions about the details surrounding certain FOIA requests, such as one made by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group.

The group asked for documents pertaining to the “Local Arrangements for the Repatriation of Mexican Nationals” agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, according to an excerpt of an interview with Catherine Papoi, the former deputy chief FOIA officer for DHS.

According to the report, a political appointee emailed the career FOIA specialist to find out background information about the documents that had been requested. 

William Holzerland, DHS associate director for disclosure policy and FOIA program development, and Vania Lockett, associate director of disclosure and FOIA operations, told the committee that this process of educating the political employees took a significant amount of time and was “an impediment to getting requests out the door, and had been for some time,” according to the report.

Issa has said that Papoi was recently demoted from her position because of comments she made with regards to this process. 

When Issa took over control of the oversight 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 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.

“Though the chairman has clearly already reached his conclusions, we look forward to appearing before the committee tomorrow in our continuing good faith effort to cooperate with the committee’s oversight,” Kudwa said.