BY: Follow @lachlan
Hillary Clinton’s office received 240 requests under the Freedom of Information Act during her time as secretary of state, but only three of those requests received responses within the legally required timeframe, according to government watchdogs.
Of those requests, 177 are still pending, according to a report released on Thursday by the State Department’s inspector general. State took more than 500 days to respond to 55 of those requests, even though federal officials are required to respond within 20 business days.
While delays beyond that timeframe are not unique to State, the report noted, the department is among the least responsive of any federal agency to FOIA requests. It is the only one that does not notify requesters of processing delays as required by federal law, according to the report.
Despite those and other problems, the report said, State has not sent an official notice to department employees reminding them of their obligations under FOIA since March 2009, a month after Clinton took office. That notice was a message from Clinton commemorating Freedom of Information Day.
The report is one of a series to emerge from a larger review of State Department transparency policies triggered by controversy over Clinton’s use of a personal email account while leading the department.
According to the report, officials processing FOIA requests have “no way to independently locate Federal records from such accounts unless employees take steps to preserve official emails in Department record-keeping systems.”
State employees are required to turn over personal emails containing official communications within 20 days. But the department’s top official in charge of records and correspondence, who has handled FOIA requests involving the secretary’s office since 2006, told the inspector general that State officials have never provided him with personal emails in response to a FOIA request.
The report’s release comes amidst a rolling FOIA production of documents from Clinton’s tenure as secretary. Her emails at State were initially shielded from public records requests because they were stored on a private email server in her Chappaqua, N.Y., home.
She turned her emails over to State in 2014 after the department was made aware of her exclusive use of personal email accounts while secretary. Clinton claimed this was a request made of multiple former secretaries, but State later revealed that the request was prompted by revelations regarding her personal email use.
According to the report, subsequent productions of Clinton correspondence requested through FOIA have contained numerous inaccuracies and have omitted messages responsive to those requests.
When the left-leaning group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked for a list of Clinton’s email accounts in 2013, before the existence of her personal accounts was publicly known, Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, was personally informed of the request, according to the report.
Mills “subsequently tasked staff to follow up. However, [inspector general] found no evidence to indicate that any of these senior officials reviewed the search results or approved the response to CREW,” the report says.
Even though the request specifically pertained to email usage, “ it does not appear that [FOIA officers] searched any email records.”
In another case, Clinton’s office simply failed to respond to State officials seeking documents for a FOIA request filed by the Associated Press.
The AP requested Clinton’s personal and official calendars and schedules. FOIA officers forwarded the request to Clinton’s office, but never got a reply. AP eventually sued for the records, and the department produced 4,400 pages of documents.
Such lawsuits were integral in forcing Clinton to turn over emails to State for open-records purposes. But even emails sent over State’s servers might exclude relevant documents due to State’s failure to comply with FOIA requirements, according to the report.
Federal law requires that officials searching for records in response a FOIA request to include electronic communications in that search. However, the inspector general found that the secretary’s office “rarely searched electronic email accounts prior to 2011 and still does not consistently search these accounts, even when relevant records are likely to be uncovered through such a search.”
Instead, State officials search email records only if a request specifically asks for them, as opposed to more general terms such as “correspondence.”
The inspector general made four recommendations in the report, and said it was satisfied with State’s responses to them.
The department said that it is upping its budget request for staff to handle FOIA requests, ensuring that it searches email records, drafting new policies to ensure accuracy and timeliness, and working with FOIA officers to identify and address other shortcomings in its handling of requests.