Political scrutiny tops at Homeland Security

Want to see public documents from the Department of Homeland Security? Until earlier this month, you had to be prepared to have political operatives within the department scrutinize personal information about you, including possibly your political affiliation and the organization you work for, and question your motives for requesting the information.

None of that is required under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows people to obtain information from federal agencies unless there is a clear national security risk in releasing the information or it violates personal privacy.

Homeland Security changed its policy on handling FOIA requests just as the Associated Press was investigating its policies. The timing of the policy change was a coincidence, a spokeswoman said.

Yeah, right.

The AP investigation makes it clear that the Homeland Security Department — led by Secretary Janet Napolitano — was not interested in the sort of transparency that candidate Barack Obama pledged in 2008 would be a hallmark of his presidency.

The AP reported that Homeland Security “detoured hundreds of requests for federal records to senior political advisers for highly unusual scrutiny.” Those political operatives sought information about the people making the FOIA requests, AP said. And, while a Homeland Security spokesman said no FOIA requests were denied because of the political scrutiny, there were delays in the release of information that was determined to be politically sensitive.

In fact, Homeland Security fought for seven months AP’s request to see e-mails related to its process for handling FOIA requests. It wasn’t until an independent government agency got involved and mediated the dispute that Homeland Security finally turned nearly 1,000 e-mails over to the news agency.

A year ago this month, Homeland Security issued a directive requiring career employees to submit many FOIA requests to political appointees within the department. Even requests from members of Congress were subject to such political scrutiny.

The political appointees were particularly eager to learn of any FOIA requests related to the thwarted Christmas Day bombing attempt on a jet liner flying into Detroit. That was the case in which the bomber was subdued by other passengers on the plane, and Napolitano quickly proclaimed, “The system worked.”

Not surprisingly, the policy also caused a rift within the department between the career employees and the political appointees.

Obama’s transparency pledge has already suffered significant hits. Whether the issue was discussion of health care proposals or White House guest lists, the current administration has been little more transparent than President George W. Bush’s was.

But Napolitano and her department have gone further. They have intentionally trampled on the legal rights of Americans to gain information about the workings of their government.

Thanks to the Associated Press, we now know that political scrutiny was paramount at the Department of Homeland Security.


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