- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama is a president who won a peace prize and took the nation into a new war. It ought not to be a surprise, then, that he would accept an award for his administration’s transparency last week as his third-largest agency was raked over the coals by Congress for obstructionism. The House Oversight and Government Reform committee alleged in a report released Wednesday that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has politicized the way it responds to requests for information from the public and the press.

Under the law, a government agency must release a document created with taxpayer dollars to any citizen who asks for it unless it meets a number of well-defined exceptions. Documents related to such things as national security, ongoing law-enforcement investigations, medical records and other sensitive, personal records are exempt for obvious reasons. The committee found that Obama political appointees misused these statutory exemptions and manipulated the process to ensure that embarrassing information would be withheld from the public eye.

The report charged that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s staff interfered with requests to such a degree that they had “effectively ground the department’s [Freedom of Information Act] operation to a halt.” The report showed that all significant requests for documents had to go through Ms. Napolitano’s office, which selectively edited response letters and demanded to know the identities of anyone seeking information from the department. Staff at the DHS privacy office, which handles the freedom of information requests, became upset. “This level of attention is CRAZY,” Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan wrote in a Dec. 15, 2009, email to a subordinate. “I really really want someone to FOIA this whole damn process.” After an Associated Press request did just that, Ms. Napolitano’s office stopped using email to discuss the requests and communicated approvals by telephone - ensuring there would no longer be a paper trail.

The DHS response to the AP included a number of emails that were censored as privileged documents regarding internal deliberations. One of these included a Sept. 25, 2009, email from William Holzerland, the associate director for disclosure policy, which stated in full: “This is bananas!” It’s not clear how release of this email in unredacted form would harm national security.

As Mr. Holzerland admitted in testimony to the committee, the DHS practice “does not square” with Mr. Obama’s public directives regarding disclosure. While the Obama administration talks about openness, it is really only interested in positive public relations for its policy prescriptions. That’s why few people believe DHS agencies like the Transportation Security Administration when it insists the use of pornographic scanners at airports is safe and effective. That’s why nobody believes Ms. Napolitano when she insists the Department of Homeland Security is doing everything it can to secure our borders. Obama appointees can stonewall all they want, but the public has a right to know what DHS is doing with the $57 billion taxpayers provide the department each year.

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