Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Top aide involved in process meant to be free of political influence
Hillary Clinton’s top aide was closely involved in vetting a politically sensitive document requested under public information laws, according to emails from the Department of State released on Thursday.
Public records officials at the State Department sought clearance from Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, in 2012 before releasing a memo related to the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program.
The email corroborates a Wall Street Journal article last May that reported that Mills had been involved in vetting documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a process that is typically expected to be independent of political influence.
Sheryl Walter, the director of the State Department’s public information office, wrote to Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, and other officials on April 2, 2012 to inform them of a “pending FOIA release likely to get press attention.”
The document being released was a 2006 paper known as the “Zelikow memo,” which had been written by a Bush administration official concerning the government’s enhanced interrogation program.
Walter told Kennedy in an email that “Cheryl Mills is aware and has cleared” the memo for release.
“I wanted to be sure you all were in the loop on this now so that you won’t be taken by surprise and were assured this has been fully vetted, cleared, and planned for,” wrote Walter.
Later that day, Kennedy emailed Mills and asked, “Does this comport with what you have agreed to?”
That evening, Mills forwarded the messages from Kennedy and Walter to Hillary Clinton.
Mills’s involvement in the information request process under Clinton came under scrutiny from Sen. Charles Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after the Wall Street Journalreported last May that the Clinton aide “scrutinized politically sensitive documents requested under public-records law and sometimes blocked their release.”
Grassley sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last spring questioning the department’s public information practices and criticizing the FOIA management process under Clinton as “troubling.”
“[A]s recent reports indicate, it appears the political concerns of senior agency staff are undermining the public’s right to know under FOIA,” wrote Grassley in the May 22, 2015 letter. “This is, without question, a far cry from the spirit of our nation’s transparency laws, as well as from the President’s ‘presumption of openness.’”
Grassley also questioned whether it was “standard protocol for the Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff to review documents subject to a FOIA request before production?”
In one email exchange from October 2012 that was published by the Wall Street Journal last May, one State Department staffer told another official that one request under the Freedom of Information Act was “still pending with Cheryl Mills’ office…. The real action, for now, is with Cheryl’s office.”
Sources also told the paper that Mills was involved in reviewing requests for public documents related to the Keystone XL pipeline and to Bill Clinton’s paid speaking engagements, which were both politically sensitive subjects for Clinton’s State Department.
A public information expert told the Wall Street Journal that political appointees should be limited in their authority over the FOIA process.
“Ultimately, the career people have to be the ones who make the final call,” Miriam Nisbet, a former FOIA ombudsman director at the National Archives and Records Administration, told the Journal.
Alec Gerlach, a spokesman for the State Department, said that the department “strives to publicly release as much information as possible and only withholds materials that are exempt or excluded from public release under terms spelled out in the Freedom of Information Act.”
“It is entirely appropriate for Department personnel outside the FOIA office to be made aware of documents that could potentially respond to Freedom of Information Act requests received by the Department,” said Gerlach.
Mills and her attorney did not respond to a request for comment.