WASHINGTON – Insiders at the Homeland Security Department warned for months that senior Obama administration appointees were improperly delaying the releases of government files on politically sensitive topics as sought by citizens, journalists and watchdog groups under the Freedom of Information Act, according to uncensored emails newly obtained by The Associated Press.
The highly unusual political vetting was described as "meddling," "crazy" and "bananas!" It is the subject of a congressional hearing later this week and an ongoing inquiry by the department's inspector general.
Concerns came even from the official put in charge of submitting files to the political staff of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for the secretive reviews. Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan, who was appointed by Napolitano, complained in late 2009 that the vetting process was burdensome and said she wanted to change it.
Callahan is expected to be a central witness during an oversight hearing Thursday by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. In emails, she warned that the Homeland Security Department might be sued over delays the political reviews were causing, and she hinted that a reporter might find out about the political scrutiny.
"This level of attention is CRAZY," Callahan wrote in December 2009 to her then-deputy, Catherine Papoi. Callahan said she hoped someone outside the Obama administration would discover details of the political reviews, possibly by asking for evidence of them under the Freedom of Information Act itself: "I really really want someone to FOIA this whole damn process," Callahan wrote.
Less than one week after Callahan's email, on Dec. 21, the AP formally requested the records about the controversial political vetting. The agency ultimately turned over more than 995 pages of emails last summer, after a seven-month fight, and the AP wrote about the program. But the emails were heavily censored under provisions in the Freedom of Information Act allowing the government to withhold passages that describe internal policy-making deliberations.
The newly obtained versions of the same internal emails are not censored. Together with other confidential emails obtained by the AP for the first time, the files reflect deep unease about the reviews plus new concerns about whether Napolitano's senior political advisers might have hidden embarrassing or sensitive emails that journalists and watchdog groups had requested.
After an admitted al-Qaida operative tried to blow up a commercial airliner flying to Detroit on Christmas 2009, the AP asked for emails sent among Napolitano; her chief of staff, Noah Kroloff; deputy chief of staff Amy Shlossman; and four others. But the number of printed pages that Kroloff and Shlossman turned over to the FOIA unit was much less than what a computer search indicated should have existed, according to emails.
"When (the chief information office) pulled off the emails for these individuals, the page count is much higher, indicating that Shlossman and Kroloff possibly did not retrieve all the responsive emails or opted not to produce all responsive emails," Papoi wrote in May to Callahan. "I think we have an obligation to compare the hard copy emails to those pulled by the CIO from the individuals' email accounts to determine why the discrepancy."
More recently, immigration rights advocates asked the Homeland Security Department for emails that political advisers exchanged with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement about a controversial enforcement program. Inside the government, the search turned up emails described as "embarrassing, crude exchanges." But the political advisers never turned over their own embarrassing emails; these were revealed only when the recipients elsewhere in the department provided them.
"Apparently these embarrassing exchanges didn't get turned over when the (political) front office conducted its search but they did when the ICE employees copied on these exchanges coughed up the responsive records," the FOIA unit's associate director, William Holzerland, wrote in January to Papoi.
Papoi responded, "They don't like to abide by the law or be reminded that they are breaking it."
The congressional investigation into government transparency under President Barack Obama is among the earliest by Republicans since they won control of the House and targets one of the first pledges Obama made after he moved into the White House.
The Freedom of Information Act, the main tool forcing the government to be more transparent, is designed to be insulated from political considerations. Anyone who seeks information through the law is supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose confidential decision-making in certain areas. People can request government records without specifying why they want them and are not obligated to provide personal information about themselves other than their name and an address where the records should be sent.
But at the Homeland Security Department, since July 2009, career employees were ordered to provide political staffers with information about the people who asked for records — such as where they lived and whether they were private citizens or reporters — and about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought such documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican. No one in government was allowed to discuss the political reviews with anyone whose information request was affected by them.
Papoi was replaced earlier this month by her new boss, Delores J. Barber, who took over Papoi's title as deputy chief FOIA officer and moved into Papoi's office. The Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said that "appeared to be an act of retaliation," after Issa identified Papoi as the employee who confidentially complained in March 2010 to the DHS inspector general about the political vetting of requests for government files.
The emails also raise doubts about whether the emails previously released to the AP were properly censored. "The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said shortly after he took office.
In a statement Sunday, Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said, "Redaction decisions have always been made by FOIA professionals and career legal staff."
The government censored Callahan's email that described the "crazy" scrutiny by political advisers. It also censored another email by Holzerland, who told Callahan in September 2009 that the political reviews were "bananas!" Also censored were complaints by Papoi, the former deputy, that the political reviews were "meddling" and, together with "constant stonewalling" by the department's top lawyers, causing delays in the agency's open records department.
"I currently have 98 requests that are tagged by the front office for tracking and forwarding to the front office," Papoi wrote in one previously censored passage. "I simply don't have the time or staff to review all of those requests before we send them on. Quite honestly, we shouldn't have to."
The AP protested last year that the emails it received had been improperly censored, but the Homeland Security Department never responded to its formal appeal.
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