The State Department has been dismissing about half of the press requests it receives for information under open government laws – a pattern of rejection that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee described on Wednesday as unacceptable and embarrassing.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the committee, said the State Department has repeatedly failed to respect the country’s open government laws, like the Freedom of Information Act, more commonly known as FOIA. Reporters often use FOIA requests to make public previously unknown information about federal agencies. The State Department is one of many agencies obligated to comply with open government laws and yet its refusal to relinquish that information has forced The Associated Press to file a lawsuit against the department in March.
“This is unacceptable,” the Vermont Democrat said during a Wednesday congressional hearing on open government issues. “While I recognize that the number of FOIA requests has increased over the years and that the requests can be complex, this is not a reason to fall down on the job.”
It typically takes the State Department about 18 months to answer – or refuse to answer – anything other than a simple request, said Karen Kaiser, general counsel for The Associated Press. In addition, the State Department has failed to turn over files in response to requests covering the tenure of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ms. Kaiser explained to lawmakers during the hearing.
Ms. Kaiser, who served on a witness panel, said that some of those requests were made two years ago. One of the requests was made five years ago, she said. At this point, there is very little recourse for the news agency outside of litigation, Ms. Kaiser said.
“The State Department dismissed all its statutory deadlines, and even its own self-created deadlines,” she said. “These requests concerned not only emails, but documents, correspondence, memos, and calendars on some of the most significant issues of our time, such as the Osama bin Laden raid, surveillance practices, documents relating to a defense contractor, and material on some of Ms. Clinton’s long-time aides. These are documents the public has a right to see and which the agency is required to release, yet the only way to force the agency to comply with the law was to sue them.”
Ms. Clinton has been at the center of controversy after she admitted to using her personal email server to maintain records when she was Secretary of State. Last year, Ms. Clinton turned over to authorities more than 50,000 pages of emails that she had sent using her personal email account.
She is expected to attend a congressional hearing this month on her email practices and the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi.