WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog says the agency needlessly delayed releasing documents to reporters and others under the Freedom of Information Act because of a now-rescinded policy requiring approval first from political appointees, The Associated Press has learned.
The inspector general's report said the senior official in charge of submitting files for political screening, Mary Ellen Callahan, should have warned Secretary Janet Napolitano about the problems the policy caused.
The 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 the advisers' involvement led to unnecessary delays that violated deadlines under the law requiring government files to be turned over to news organizations and outside groups that requested 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 department on Wednesday cited parts of the report that determined that political advisers "did not prohibit the eventual release of information" and praised Callahan for ensuring "greater communication across the department on FOIA issues, which improves consistency and efficiency in the disclosure of information."
The findings from the inspector general were expected to be made public later this week, ahead of an hearing Thursday by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. The chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has said the department was failing to meet promises of greater government transparency by President Barack Obama.
"Political review of FOIA requests is antithetical to the fundamental values that undergird the FOIA," said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil rights group.
Verdi, who was expected to testify at the hearing, told lawmakers that his organization frequently clashes with government agencies over a reluctance to hand over files, "but we have never observed agency practices that flag FOIA requests for political review."
The AP also obtained prepared testimony of the acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, summarizing investigators' conclusions.
Sensitive to anticipated political criticism by Republicans, the committee's Democrats noted that the inspector general did not find instances in which political advisers blocked the release of files.
Edwards said Callahan, the department's chief privacy officer, expressed concerns about delays to at least one unspecified senior official in Napolitano's office but "these concerns were not heeded." Edwards said Callahan 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 the House hearing.
In emails obtained this week by the AP and cited by the inspector general, Callahan 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 screening process was burdensome and said she wanted to change it. She also warned that the department might be sued over delays the political reviews were causing.
The 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.
This week, 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."