WASHINGTON — A GOP investigation accused the Homeland Security Department of "administrative incompetence, illegal politicization and official obstruction" over its now-rescinded policy of secretly detouring requests for government files to senior political advisers for scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.
The agency's inspector general, in a separate report, said the advisers "had little to contribute" and caused unnecessary delays that violated deadlines under the law. The extra screening occurred between 500 and 700 times over the past two years.
The 153-page report by investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said the reviews "corrupted the agency's FOIA compliance procedures, exerted political pressure on FOIA compliance officers and undermined the federal government's accountability to the American people."
The Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the investigative report in advance of a committee hearing Thursday, disclosed last summer the political scrutiny of the government files.
Democrats and department officials disputed the claims of politicization and obstruction.
The inquiry took eight months and covered thousands of pages of internal emails. It was one of the earliest investigations by Republicans since they won control of the House and sets the tone for future interactions between the White House and Capitol Hill.
The probe also focused on one of the first pledges President Barack Obama made after he took office — making sure the government operates more in the open.
"There is a significant divide between what President Obama has directed agencies to do on FOIA and what political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security are actually doing," the committee chairman, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said in a statement.
"Political appointees do not have a right to stop or delay releases of information through FOIA because they find them embarrassing, inconvenient or politically sensitive," he said.
Democrats said they found no evidence the department withheld government files for political purposes.
A department spokeswoman, Amy Kudwa, said Issa's report was "full of selective omissions and redactions that appear to have been made to support these allegations."
The report by the internal watchdog said the political reviews needlessly delayed the release of requested documents.
One request for Coast Guard records languished for 37 days, even though Attorney General Eric Holder's told agencies in March 2009: "Unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have no place in the new era of open government."
"While the department has a legitimate need to be aware of media inquiries, we are not persuaded that delaying a FOIA release so that officials can prepare for expected inquiries is the best public policy," acting inspector general Charles K. Edwards wrote in prepared testimony. "The problem is that some of these inquiries unnecessarily delayed the final issuance of some FOIA responses."
The department noted that his report said political advisers "did not prohibit the eventual release of information" and praised chief privacy officer Mary Ellen Callahan for ensuring "greater communication across the department on FOIA issues."
Callahan, expected to be a witness at Thursday's hearing, expressed concerns about delays to at least one unspecified senior official in Secretary Janet Napolitano's office but "these concerns were not heeded," Edwards said.
The Republican investigation said:
—The political advisers didn't understand the rules under the FOIA. One young political staffer, Julia Fox, asked in December 2009 why a person had asked for files and was told that people lawfully can request records without specifying why they want them.
"Whether they are going to wallpaper their bedroom with the records or put them on the front page of the Post, it just doesn't matter," said William Holzerland, the FOIA unit's associate director, who opposed the reviews.
—Napolitano's deputy chief of staff, Amy Shlossman, joked about attending a training meeting organized by Holzerland because it would be "good for a few laughs."
—By the middle of last year, as a lawyer for the AP was demanding copies of internal emails as part its reporting, political staffers stopped sending emails to approve releases of government files to journalists and watchdog groups and used the telephone instead. Investigators said staffers "learned the hard way that the written communications regarding the department's FOIA process are themselves subject to FOIA" and said Napolitano's political staff "moved away from written clearance of records" after the AP's story was published.
—The department improperly withheld from AP embarrassing passages in emails under a provision of the law that protects confidential decision-making in certain areas. Censored passages were "simply embarrassing to the department's political appointees," investigators said.
Obama said shortly after he took office that, "The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed or because of speculative or abstract fears."
—Shlossman, during her four-hour interview, told investigators she couldn't remember, didn't know or wasn't aware of answers to questions 79 times. They said her behavior left "the impression that her testimony was intentionally vague on the advice of counsel."
The report accused a department lawyer, Reid Cox, of trying to walk out of an interview with investigators this month with copies of agency emails inside his bag. Cox was instructed by Republican and Democratic congressional staffers to leave the material, which the committee had obtained, but he responded, "How about I take the exhibits, and you call me?"
Cox maintained that the papers belonged to the department "so there is no reason the committee should be able to prevent us from taking them."
The department abandoned its practice of requiring approval by political appointees before information could be released after the AP investigated the program last year. Since July, political advisers have been afforded three business days to object to the release of information that otherwise could be withheld under nine narrow provisions in the law protecting national security, privacy or confidential decision-making. If there are no objections, the records can be released.
This week, Callahan reduced the review period to one business day.
Congressional investigators said the changes in policies since AP began investigating appeared to be "strategically designed to shield the FOIA function from future scrutiny from the media and Congress."
Under the previous system in place, no files could be released to reporters, watchdog groups or even members of Congress without specific approval by Napolitano's political advisers. The inspector general called it "unprecedented involvement in the FOIA process" under Obama.
Committee report: http://tinyurl.com/4kxmp7e