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Homeland Security's Heightened Political Sensitivity Meant Delayed Record Requests

A now-abandoned policy of the Homeland Security Department required that politically sensitive FOIA requests get special scrutiny. The Associated Press reports that the practice caused delays and confusion.

Political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security reviewed—and sometimes even passed on to the White House for review—FOIA requests that they  felt were politically sensitive, according to The Associated Press. The practice went on for at least a year, after a July 2009 directive requiring “a wide range of information to be vetted by political appointees for ‘awareness purposes.’”

As a result, some of those requesting federal records under the Freedom of Information Act, unbeknownst to them, had their requests—and their identities and motivations—subjected to an additional layer of scrutiny, according to e-mail unearthed by the AP (via, of course, the Freedom of Information Act). That additional scrutiny meant another bureaucratic hurdle and additional delay in a process that, as we know, can be troublesome enough as it is.

The AP story is careful to point out that just because the rule was in place—and political appointees looked at the requests—the e-mails do not indicate that anything was necessarily withheld because of it:

Instead they point to acute political sensitivities that slowed the process, a probing curiosity about the people and organizations making the request for records, and considerable confusion.

From the e-mail, the confusion seems apparent.

Homeland Security was “adamant,” according to the AP, that final approval didn’t rest with the political staff—they were “merely reviewing” the requests. But other e-mail directed employees “never to release information under FOIA without approval by political appointees.” The AP quoted one from the agency's director of disclosure, Catherine Papoi:

"It is imperative that these requests are not released prior to the front office reviewing both the letter and the records," Papoi wrote in an e-mail to the agency's officers responsible for administering the law.

Certain requests did require White House review, including “requests to see documents” about stimulus spending and “calendars for Cabinet members,” the AP reported; outside of that, it wasn’t always clear what needed the extra review:

Anything that related to an Obama policy priority was pegged for this review. So was anything that touched on a "controversial or sensitive subject" that could attract media attention or that dealt with meetings involving prominent business and elected leaders.

Anything requested by lawmakers, journalists, activist groups or watchdog organizations had to go to the political appointees.

The White House told the AP that it didn’t have a part in creating the 2009 rule. Homeland Security has since abandoned the practice of vetting records in this way, and it appears that the departmental watchdogs from the inspector general’s office have been looking into how it was done. For more, read the whole piece.

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