Obama transparency edict gets lost in the fog

November 15, 2013
State Department (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
State Department(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In his first inaugural address, President Obama said that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

And he issued a memo to all department and agency heads instructing them that “my administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

But maybe the message hasn’t quite sunk in everywhere.

Take, for example, the tussle ProPublica, the online investigative organization, has been having with the State Department over a list of maybe 100 “special government employees” (SGE) working there. (SGEs were created 50 years ago so experts with outside jobs could work part-time in government — with or without pay.)

This would include folks like former Hillary Clinton chief of staff Cheryl Mills, who we reported in August had been working as an SGE on Haiti matters. Other Clinton aides, such as Huma Abedin and Maggie Williams also were reported to have been working there as SGEs. So we’re down to 97.

ProPublica’s  Justin Elliott and Liz Day asked a number of agencies to send lists of their SGEs. Many readily did. But not the State Department. “As general policy,” a spokeswoman said, “the department does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

In September, after ProPublica had filed a Freedom of Information Act  request in July for the names, state said no such list existed, the personnel folks don’t compile lists of SGEs, and putting together such a list would require “extensive research” so state didn’t have to respond under FOIA. Seriously, that’s what they said.

ProPublica told state in late September that they were going to write about the refusal. The agency then said it would turn over the records in a few weeks. “It’s been four months since the original request was filed,” ProPublica said yesterday.

In response to our inquiry, a State Department official said: “Our FOIA office works to respond to all FOIA requests in a comprehensive and timely manner to comply with requesters while maintaining employee protections of privacy. The request from ProPublica is in process, and our office is diligently working to resolve it.”

Maybe state’s headquarters is appropriately located in Foggy Bottom.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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Al Kamen | November 14, 2013