Washington For at least a year, the Homeland Security Department detoured hundreds of requests for federal records to senior political advisers for highly unusual scrutiny, probing for information about the requesters and delaying disclosures deemed too politically sensitive, according to nearly 1,000 pages of internal e-mails obtained by The Associated Press.
The department abandoned the practice after AP investigated. Inspectors from the department’s Office of Inspector General quietly conducted interviews last week to determine whether political advisers acted improperly.
The Freedom of Information Act, the main tool forcing the government to be more open, is designed to be insulated from political considerations.
Anyone who seeks information through the law is supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose confidential decision-making in certain areas.
But in July 2009, Homeland Security introduced a directive requiring a wide range of information to be vetted by political appointees for “awareness purposes,” no matter who requested it. The government on Wednesday estimated fewer than 500 requests underwent such political scrutiny; the Homeland Security Department received about 103,000 total requests for information last fiscal year.
Career employees were ordered to provide Secretary Janet Napolitano’s political staff with information about the people who asked for records — such as where they lived, whether they were private citizens or reporters — and about the organizations where they worked.
If a member of Congress sought such documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican.
This, despite President Barack Obama’s statement that federal workers should “act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation” under FOIA, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion: “Unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have no place in the new era of open government.”
The special reviews at times delayed the release of information to Congress, watchdog groups and the news media for weeks beyond the usual wait, even though the directive specified the reviews should take no more than three days.
The foot-dragging reached a point that officials worried the department would get sued, one e-mail shows.