WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the State Department to speed up the release of documents related to a decision made under former Secretary Hillary Clinton to allow a foreign defense contractor that admitted criminal wrongdoing to continue doing business with the Pentagon.
The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2013 for emails and internal memos involving a U.S. subsidiary of the British aerospace giant BAE Systems. AP sued after the State Department failed to provide those and other requested public records, including Clinton's official calendars and emails transmitted through her private server.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon told the government at a court hearing in Washington that the documents must be provided to AP well before the November election. Clinton, who served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"Tell your colleagues at the State Department ... weekend trips to Nantucket should be off the table," Leon told one of the government lawyers. "They should be rolling up their sleeves to get this done."
BAE pleaded guilty in March 2010 to one criminal count of conspiring to making false statements about its compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and paid a $400 million fine. The Justice Department said that BAE had conducted a 20-year practice of illegal payments to Saudi Arabian officials related to arms deals.
The conviction could have resulted in the American subsidiary losing billions in U.S. military contracts. But an assistant secretary working for Clinton signed off on BAE keeping its lucrative U.S. business. Documents show Clinton was briefed on the issue before the decision was made.
In a court hearing last week, AP lawyer Jay Brown told Leon the documents likely contain information of public interest, including the reasoning behind allowing BAE to keep its U.S. weapons contracts.
"Many of those elements relate directly to decisions that American voters are going to have to make in this election," Brown said. "At least they potentially relate to that. We don't have the documents."
The department estimates it will have to sort through at least 10,000 pages. Only a small fraction of them have been provided to AP so far, most heavily censored.
In previous affidavits to the judge, State Department lawyers said they expected to show some internal documents to attorneys for BAE to allow the firm to ask for redactions of any proprietary trade secrets.
A lawyer for the State Department said last week that BAE's attorneys were reviewing the materials "pretty quickly." The government lawyer added, however, that in some cases the agency and BAE's law firms have differed sentence by sentence over how much material should be blacked out before release to the AP.
Among the items redacted as "trade secrets" so far include the entirety of a published news article about the BAE case. In another instance, the number of potential criminal violations the Justice Department figured the military contractor had committed was also obscured as a "trade secret."
Justice Department lawyer Carol Federighi, representing the State Department, told Leon Wednesday she had personally reviewed all the redactions and stood by them. "He's already got a lot more than we normally release," she said, gesturing toward the AP's lawyer.
Leon, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, warned Federighi he would hold the government accountable for any unnecessary redactions, even if it meant hauling U.S. officials into court and holding a closed-door hearing on the purportedly secret information.
"As many claims as you are asserting, you are probably going to be in this courtroom every day for a month," the judge told the government lawyer. "It'll be painful for all involved -- including me."