WASHINGTON — A House committee has asked the Homeland Security Department to provide documents about an agency policy that required political appointees to review many Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a letter obtained Sunday by The Associated Press.
The letter to Homeland Security was sent late Friday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It represents an early move by House Republicans who have vowed to launch numerous probes of President Barack Obama's administration, ranging from its implementation of the new health care law to rules curbing air pollution to spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Associated Press reported in July that for at least a year, Homeland Security had sidetracked hundreds of requests for federal records to top political advisers to the department's secretary, Janet Napolitano. The political appointees wanted information about those requesting the materials, and in some cases the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to numerous e-mails that were obtained by the AP.
The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to ensure the quick public release of requested government documents without political consideration. Obama has said his administration would emphasize openness in providing requested federal records.
According to Issa's letter, Homeland Security's chief privacy officer and FOIA official told committee staff in September that political appointees were simply made aware of "significant and potentially controversial requests."
Mary Ellen Callahan told them that political appointees reviewed the agency's FOIA response letters for grammatical and other errors and did not edit or delay their release, the letter states. She also told the committee that Homeland Security abandoned the practice in response to the AP's article, according to Issa's letter.
On Sunday, Oversight panel spokesman Frederick Hill said Issa sent the letter "because the committee has received documents that raise questions about the veracity of DHS officials" on the matter. He did not elaborate.
Issa asked the agency to provide the documents by Jan. 29.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said Sunday that his agency reduced its backlog of Freedom of Information requests last year by 40 percent, and has handled more requests for records than any other agency. He said the department follows Obama administration policy and has not withheld or edited any records that agency lawyers considered appropriate to release.
Chandler also said Callahan did not tell Issa's committee that the policy had been changed because of the AP's story.
Last summer, officials said fewer than 500 requests were vetted by political officials. The department received about 103,000 requests for information in a recent 12-month period.
The agency's directive said political appointees wanted to see FOIA requests for "awareness purposes," regardless of who had filed them. The AP reported that the agency's career employees were told to provide political appointees with information about who requested documents, where they lived, whether they were reporters and where they worked.
According to the directive, political aides were to review requests related to Obama policy priorities, or anything related to controversial or sensitive subjects. Requests from journalists, lawmakers and activist groups were to also to be examined.
Under a new policy last summer, documents are given to agency political advisers three days before they are released, but they can be distributed without those officials' approval.