DHS, Dems fend off Oversight chairman's claims on info release

Tempers flared and accusations were hurled on Thursday at a House Oversight Committee hearing into whether the Obama administration allowed political appointees to block the release of information.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) grilled two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees on whether information requested under open-records law was delayed or withheld because political appointees were allowed to review it.

ADVERTISEMENT

The department’s chief privacy officer, Mary Ellen Callahan, testified that the privacy office had experienced management challenges over the past two years. But she said it had made significant headway on the backlog of Freedom Of Information Act requests and never allowed political appointees to restrict the release of information.

“Let me be clear: To my knowledge, no one other than a FOIA professional or an attorney in the office of the general counsel made a substantive change to a proposed FOIA release,” she said.

Thursday’s hearing came less than 24 hours after Issa released a 153-page report charging that the FOIA process under President Obama is “less transparent and more politicized” than it was under President George W. Bush.

Issa’s eight-month pursuit of the FOIA issue among DHS’ ranks has ruffled the feathers of his Democratic counterparts.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said Issa’s “extreme accusations” were “unsubstantiated.” He said that when Democratic staff reviewed the thousands of documents and the six interviews the panel had gathered and conducted with DHS officials, “we found no evidence that DHS withheld any information for partisan political purposes.”

“Over and over again you claimed that DHS officials are making FOIA decisions based on partisan political considerations … even though the committee has conducted interviews and gathered documents that show the opposite to be true,” Cummings said.

The hearing was tense: Issa repeatedly cut off Callahan’s responses to his questions, insisting she restrict them to “yes” or “no” answers. Issa asked Callahan whether she felt that a delay of up to 90 days to receive information back on a FOIA request was acceptable. Callahan eventually said that did not meet her standards.

But Cummings fired back at Issa for his questioning of Callahan.

“One of the things that I have seen in this committee before and it is something that I am very concerned about is when people come before us and you’re not allowed to try and answer the question that you’ve been asked,” said Cummings. “I want to give you the chance to answer the question. You tried to, but weren’t permitted to.”

Democratic Reps. John Tierney (Mass.) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDemocrats debate scope of impeachment charges House Democrats rebuke State Department for 'reversal' on Israeli settlements Maloney wins House Oversight gavel MORE (Va.) also criticized Issa for two posters displayed behind him. One sign read, “Why doesn’t DHS deliver on the President’s transparency promises?” The other read, “Is this open government?” and showed a copy of an email with black lines through it.

“I look behind the chairman’s desk and I see nothing but pure politics and nonsense up there, and I would hope that if we’re to be taken seriously as a committee, the majority would begin to act that way and take the material down and approach this with the degree of seriousness to which it probably deserves,” Tierney said.

Ivan Fong, DHS’s general counsel, was on hand to answer questions from lawmakers, as was the DHS independent inspector general, who didn’t stray far from a report the office released this week.

The IG report concluded that the department's FOIA review process was not as efficient as it should be, but also said it did not impede the release of documents.

Issa and fellow Republicans stuck by their assertions that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano oversaw the “illegal politicization” of FOIA requests.

Issa’s inquiries about the role 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 made the request.

Issa said he is planning additional hearings on the matter.