WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department's inspector general has concluded that it was wasteful for the agency to secretly require approval by political appointees before government files on politically sensitive topics could be released under the Freedom of Information Act, The Associated Press has learned.
The new review said the senior official in charge of submitting files for political vetting should have warned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the serious problems the department's former policy was causing.
The inspector general's inquiry, which began one year ago, concluded that senior political advisers of Napolitano who conducted the reviews "had little to contribute" regarding the public release of information about the department's activities. It said their involvement caused unnecessary, prolonged delays that violated deadlines under the law requiring government files to be turned over to news organizations and outside groups that asked to see them.
"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 inspector general said. "The problem is that some of these inquiries unnecessarily delayed the final issuance of some FOIA responses."
The results from the inspector general's inquiry were expected to be made public later this week, ahead of an oversight hearing Thursday by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. The panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has said the Homeland Security Department was failing to meet promises of greater government transparency by President Barack Obama. The AP on Wednesday obtained prepared testimony of acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards summarizing conclusions by the agency's investigators.
Sensitive to anticipated political criticism by Republicans, the committee's Democrats noted that the inspector general did not find instances in which political advisers had prohibited government files from eventually being released.
Edwards said the department's chief privacy officer, Mary Ellen Callahan, expressed concerns about delays from the reviews to at least one unspecified senior official in Napolitano's office but "these concerns were not heeded." Edwards said Callahan, the senior DHS official in charge of the Freedom of Information Act, had a legal obligation to give Napolitano the opportunity to fix the problems.
"Recommending changes to DHS FOIA practices would have informed the secretary of problems related to the review process," Edwards said.
Callahan is expected to be a central witness at this week's congressional hearing. In emails obtained earlier this week by the AP, Callahan had complained that the unusual political scrutiny was "crazy" and said she hoped someone outside the Obama administration would discover the practice. She wrote in late 2009 that the vetting process was burdensome and said she wanted to change it. She also warned that the Homeland Security Department might be sued over delays the political reviews were causing.
The Homeland Security Department abandoned its practice of requiring approval by political appointees before information could be released after the AP investigated the program last year. Since July, political advisers have been afforded three business days to object to the release of information that otherwise could be withheld under nine narrow provisions in the law protecting national security, privacy or confidential decision-making. If there are no objections, the records can be released. Earlier this week, ahead of the congressional hearing, Callahan reduced the review period to one business day.
Under the previous system in place, no files could be released to reporters, watchdog groups or even members of Congress without specific approval by Napolitano's political advisers. The inspector general called it "unprecedented involvement in the FOIA process since 2009."
The AP revealed the political vetting last summer based on nearly 1,000 pages of internal e-mails it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The emails showed that AP's requests for government files about terrorist plots, Napolitano's speeches, funding for border crossings, the Gulf oil spill — and even AP's investigation of the FOIA program — were subject to political reviews that the inspector general identified as "inefficient oversight."
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