Transparency Suffers as State Department Fails to Report
In her four years as the top U.S. diplomat, Hillary Clinton kept a running total of countries visited, miles traveled and hours spent in transit on the State Department website.
Still untallied: The bill to taxpayers for her globe-trotting.
Bloomberg News last year asked for the details of out-of-town trips for the heads of 57 major departments in fiscal 2011, a test of President Barack Obama’s pledge to run the most open government in history. As of July 12, about one-fifth of those surveyed hadn’t responded.
The State Department is one of five Cabinet offices that have yet to fully comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose the details and expenses of official travel more than a year after they were filed.
“These are exactly the kinds of records Cabinet offices should have at their fingertips,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a Washington-based open-information advocacy group. “You should not even have to ask for these records. They should be online already.”
The Justice Department, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with the open-government law, took more than one year to comply even though Attorney General Eric Holder has called swift responses to public records petitions an “essential component” of government transparency. Following repeated queries, the agency provided travel vouchers and then the costs of the trips last week.
Open-government requests that involve numerous records and the personal details of top officials may lead to processing delays, said Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy.
“While the length of time necessary to process these requests can vary depending on whether sensitive, national security or privacy information is involved, they are handled as promptly as possible,” Pustay said in an e-mail.
The remaining holdouts among Obama’s Cabinet include former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Under FOIA, agencies have 20 working days after an information request to provide the data or offer a timetable for its eventual delivery.
The Obama administration’s response record belies directives from both the president and Holder himself. On his first full day in office, Obama signed an executive order telling federal officials of his intention to “usher in a new era of open government.”
Holder -- as the nation’s top law enforcement official and custodian of FOIA compliance -- followed up in March 2009 with instructions on how to be more open.
“Timely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency,” he said.
On a “Travels with the Secretary” State Department website page, visitors could track the record-setting pace Clinton kept in office.
She visited 112 countries, traveled 956,733 miles and spent 2,084 hours -- or more than 86 days -- in flight, according to the department.
In the year ended Sept. 30, 2011, the time period subject to the FOIA filing, Clinton visited 46 countries, including Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Mexico and Haiti in January of that year.
Clinton’s successor John Kerry has maintained the tradition, logging 27 countries and 134,691 miles thus far in his tenure.
The State Department said the request for Clinton’s details may be completed next month. Estimated completion dates are “‘strictly’ estimates and not intended to be used as ‘actual’ dates of completions,” Chris Barnes, a State Department FOIA official, said in an e-mail. Nick Merrill, a spokesman for the Office of Hillary Clinton, referred a question about the records to the State Department.
The Pentagon has estimated that it will be able to deliver documents on Panetta’s and Gates’s travels by Sept. 6.
The tardy responses to Bloomberg’s travel record filings are “disturbing but not surprising,” said Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “FOIA is the way for journalists and the American people to know how officials are spending taxpayer dollars and these delays are an ugly blemish on claims of transparent government.”
The House Oversight Committee has approved a bill that would require information on federal officials’ travel to be posted online.
The Justice Department took a year to fulfill the filing for Holder’s records.
The department sent the documents last week as Bloomberg prepared a story examining the department’s lack of compliance with the law. In fiscal 2011, Holder took 62 out-of-town trips that cost at least $1.45 million, according to the disclosures. Flight costs for seven trips, including journeys to China, Hawaii and Brussels, weren’t provided.
Holder’s travel during the period in question included an April 2011 trip to Las Vegas, marked business and personal, that cost $46,358. Nine other trips, including visits to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Miami, were labeled “personal,” and cost a combined $169,502.
As attorney general, Holder is a “required use” official who is compelled by executive order to use government aircraft for all travel while in office due to “security and communications needs,” according to a February 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
Some Cabinet members offered faster responses. Hilda Solis, the former secretary of Labor, offered her travel itinerary and expenses within 28 working days, and the office of then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner responded in 43 working days.
Karen Mills, head of the Small Business Administration, was the only Cabinet-ranked member to meet the deadline, providing her travel details in 18 working days.
U.S. agencies and departments received 651,254 FOIA requests in fiscal 2012, about 1.1 percent more than a year earlier, according to FOIA.gov, the website that tracks federal responses to open-government requests.
Even with that increase, the total backlog of outstanding requests fell 14 percent to 71,790 last year from 83,490 in fiscal 2011, the government said.
While Justice Department officials have cited shrinking request backlogs as evidence the system is improving, an audit by the National Security Archive showed that agencies haven’t followed up on Holder’s demand for a review of the FOIA process. The group said in March that 59 of 100 agencies ignored the Holder-Obama directives in their regulations.
Without updated guidelines, individuals seeking travel costs may still be confronted with a varying quality of responses across the government.
One Bloomberg reporter filed a 2012 request for information on gifts to and from foreign dignitaries. Following up past deadline, a State Department FOIA officer told her to “Go ahead and sue” -- before hanging up the phone.
A Bloomberg FOIA filing seeking details of conference-related spending at the U.S. Agency for International Development was met with a request for a copy of the reporter’s employment contract and copies of news articles written within the last three years. USAID backed off after being reminded that under the law, individuals have the legal right to request public information without regard to profession.
On Sept. 26, 2007, another Bloomberg reporter requested a memo on the work contractors were doing in Iraq that had been prepared for then-Defense Secretary Gates. More than five years later -- on New Year’s Eve, 2012 -- the Pentagon denied the request. It cited an exception to FOIA allowing the withholding of communications between the president and his top advisers, one of nine categories of information shielded from the law.
The response rate to Bloomberg’s travel survey is “appalling,” Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, said in an interview.
She said citizens that don’t work for large news organizations have an even harder time getting results.
“What’s it like for an average member of the public who doesn’t have the resources, who doesn’t understand the process, who doesn’t understand what recourse they have?” Weismann said.