WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department official in charge of submitting sensitive government files to political advisers for secretive reviews before they could be released to citizens, journalists and watchdog groups complained in emails that the unusual scrutiny was “crazy” and hoped someone outside the Obama administration would discover the practice, The Associated Press has learned.
Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan, who was appointed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, complained in late 2009 that the vetting process was burdensome and said she wanted to change it, according to uncensored emails newly obtained by the AP. In the 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 vetting. The reviews are the subject of a congressional hearing later this week and an ongoing inquiry by the department’s inspector general….
Callahan is expected to be a central witness during an oversight hearing Thursday by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Anticipating the hearing, the department announced internally Monday that any further political vetting of information requests will be completed within 24 hours. 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.
Good for Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee for bringing this to light and pursuing it. Political control and delay of Freedom of Information requests is simply unacceptable, particularly from an administration that claims to believe in government transparency.
Among other things, the hearings that begin Thursday will focus on how emails regarding the FOIA process at Homeland Security had been heavily censored before being released to the AP seven months ago. (The quotes cited above are taken from uncensored versions of those same emails, presumably obtained by Issa’s committee and leaked to the press.)
As the AP reports:
“The (newly leaked) 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….
The government censored Callahan’s email that described the “crazy” scrutiny by political advisers. It also censored another email by associate FOIA director William 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.
The administration claims that the emails were censored properly, “under a provision in the Freedom of Information Act allowing the government to withhold passages that describe internal policy-making deliberations.” Issa apparently doesn’t buy it, and I don’t either. This is how government is supposed to work, one branch keeping another in check, forcing it to obey the law and keep its promises to the American people. If the hearings prove embarrassing to the Obama administration and force it to handle FOIA requests more straightforwardly in the future, that can only be a good thing.
– Jay Bookman