Obama Expands Access to Federal Records, Requests 27-Month Delay in Releasing Hillary’s Emails

President Obama signed a law vastly expanding public access to government records yesterday. In other news . . . .

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The juxtaposition of two stories that came out within an hour of each other last evening at The Hill struck me as odd.

Obama signs bill to expand access to federal records

President Obama on Thursday signed into law a bill to strengthen the government’s open records laws.

The legislation to update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made it over the finish line after years of delays, which were partly blamed on behind-the-scenes opposition in the administration.

The changes would put the force of law into a 2009 Obama directive urging agencies to err on the side of disclosure when handling open records requests.

The White House called the legislation “critical” and said it will institutionalize “principles and actions that the president has promoted since his first full day in office.”

The administration will issue new FOIA guidance later this year, and the White House committed to having a centralized request portal by next year. The White House said a group of FOIA advisers will meet next month to discuss the lingering challenges to the process.

Journalists, researchers and Congress have all criticized the current system, which often results in agencies delaying requests for years and many times requires litigation to finally dislodge the federal records.

The new law codifies a so-called presumption of openness, which critics say executive agencies have not lived up to despite Obama’s directive. Under the new provisions, agencies would have to point to a specific “foreseeable harm” when withholding documents.

Feds ask for 27-month delay in release of Clinton staff emails

The Obama administration on Thursday asked a federal court to delay until October 2018 the release of 14,000 pages of emails from aides to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In a court filing on Wednesday, administration lawyers said the State Department miscalculated the amount of material it would need to process the documents as part of a lawsuit with the conservative organization Citizens United.

As a result, the government asked for a 27-month delay to release the emails, which were originally due out on July 21.

“State deeply regrets these errors, and is working diligently to correct them as quickly as possible,” the lawyers said.

Citizens United has sued for emails between a handful of State Department officials and people at the Clinton Foundation and a consulting firm, Teneo Consulting, which has ties to the Clintons.

Among other errors, State officials said than an initial test looking at just 300 emails, which was used to calculate the amount of time necessary to process the emails, neglected to include keyword searches of the messages. Instead, they only searched the “To” and “From” lines of the messages, which failed to catch many emails.

State Department officials also “inadvertently” labeled some email attachments as irrelevant to the open records request, without checking them to make sure.

The contrast here is stunning. The president signed a law codifying the presumption that the public has the right to see documents produced by its government unless there is a specific harm in releasing them on the same day as it filed a request to not release documents for more than two years?!

The vast amount of mail that circulated to and from then-Secretary Clinton’s private email server was substantial and tracking it all down and properly vetting it is challenging. That’s among the reasons that government officials are supposed to use their government accounts for official business! Still, they’ve already had months to achieve that task and, given that Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and that there is a criminal investigation surrounding this case, it’s certainly is in the public interest to expedite the disclosures.

Frankly, it’s likely in Clinton’s interest as well. She’s been getting hammered by speculation about and slow drips from the content of these emails since the beginning of the campaign. The story reinforces the “corrupt Hillary” meme that Donald Trump is pushing. Meanwhile, minor events like yesterday’s reported meeting between the Attorney General and former President Clinton become mini-scandals.  The administration should absolutely make it a top priority to release the documents and conclude the ongoing investigation as quickly as possible.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Government, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Blue Galangal says:

    I remember following the Palin email scandal, and how shocked Alaska was at how long it would take to process the requests. It’s a small state, population-wise and government-wise (I think my metro area has almost twice as many people as all of Alaska). If I recall correctly, they were charging through the nose for the requests (probably partly to delay or discourage them) but the state government also claimed – rightly, I suspect – that they would have to add full-time staff just to fulfill the requests.

    Of course, Palin also ran her email through a private email account (or several – I recall Yahoo was one, at least), but since she was only the governor of Alaska, it was less likely national security interests were at stake. In the end, I think about 25k emails of hers were found, redacted, and released. This is 14k “pages,” whatever that means, plus attachments, and they have to be vetted for national security concerns.

    I agree they ought to be released sooner rather than later, but certainly they have provided a rationale for why it’s taking longer.

  2. al-Alameda says:

    America has a new high growth industry – Investigations – permanent (e.g. the Clintons), ongoing multiple (a Republican specialty), one time 12 to 18 months (a Democratic preference. Perhaps that’s where people should be looking in terms of jobs growth?

  3. Loviatar says:

    I guess now that the “Benghazi Scandal” has been debunked for the 8th time, the “e-Mail scandal” is back on the radar.

    tag: semi-respectable mouthpiece

  4. stonetools says:

    Clearly we need to pull people from monitoring ISIS and investigating drug cartels to help with the most crucial investigation of our time-tracking down and vetting Hillary’s emails ./snark.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    The contrast here is stunning. The president signed a law codifying the presumption that the public has the right to see documents produced by its government unless there is a specific harm in releasing them on the same day as it filed a request to not release documents for more than two years?!

    This is perfectly consistent. Those emails represent a very specific harm to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign!

  6. MarkedMan says:

    If these emails are Clinton Foundation business, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to use her government email.

    An awful lot of this email agita, whether it is Colin Powell, Condaleeza Rice or Clinton, is simply about whether SoS can use a private email address. All the SoS in the email era did so. Given that 100% of SoS did it, and that is all they looked at, it would be very surprising if other department heads did not. In fact, as a Senator she was probably emailing back and forth with all kinds of officials using private email addresses.

    And if I remember correctly, there are no corresponding regulations that apply to Senators or Reps. With no regulations banning it, how many of them have personal accounts with emails that could be retroactively classified?

  7. MarkedMan says:

    On a completely separate tack, it is always assumed by the media or the public that if a president issued a directive to do something and it doesn’t happen it means he did not really mean it. I always assume that it has more to do with bureaucratic stonewalling than presidential duplicity. But it is in no one’s interest to state that, most especially the president.

  8. empiresentry says:

    @Blue Galangal:
    Palin did not have a private server nor did she transfer SAP and Secret material from a secured firewalled system to an unsecured home brew.

    The request for 26,000 emails was delivered within a year.

    As much as I dislike Palin, nothing was found even after Dims organized relay teams to comb through it.
    Klinton Inc has spent almost 6 years dodging, stalling, intimidating and pushing back on delivery of anything. The two judges in both cases have admonished the lawyers and are ticked off.

    Stalling does not work. The claim that it was a long time ago, or lets move on, or forget about it is old and arrogant.

  9. mike smith says:

    Don’t worry, the Russians will be releasing the emails long before the Obama administration will.