The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It could be very long time before Hillary Clinton’s State Department e-mails see the light of day

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton handed off her mobile phone after arriving to meet with Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hague, Netherlands, in 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool/File)
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Hillary Clinton has said she wants the public to see 55,000 e-mails she turned over to the State Department that had been kept in her personal, unofficial e-mail account. But nobody should hold their breath waiting to see them. That’s because the State Department is legendary for taking forever to wade through and ultimately decide what documents can be released when.

That may be why – even after Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that agency officials would “undertake this task as rapidly as possible” – a State Department spokesman tamped down expectations, cautioning the process would be time-consuming given the volume of the record. That may also be why a senior State Department official told Reuters yesterday that “the review is likely to take several months given the sheer volume of the document set.”

And, the source might have added, given the State Department’s record.

In a tense exchange with reporters, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf denied anything inappropriate occurred after revelations that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton used a private e-mail account for work. (Video: C-SPAN)

The record is so bad that, in 2014, the nonpartisan Committee for Effective Government rated it last among major agencies in processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

It’s so slow that the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, in a 2012 report, chastised the department’s Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS), which handles document requests, for being “prone to delay,” saying some FOIA requests had been outstanding for up to six years, with the average time to process any complex request being roughly a year.

The Inspector General described a process worthy of the Victorian-era British Colonial Office, that “begins with IPS’s receiving and reviewing an incoming request. The request then goes to an analyst, who formulates a strategy to make the necessary searches, which can involve interacting with multiple domestic offices and overseas posts. Often, the Department’s bureaus do not make the request a high priority. After the bureau responds, the analyst packages the documents and sends them to a reviewer, who may remove some documents or suggest additional searches. The package then goes to another reviewer, who determines whether exemptions in FOIA or other statutes apply and makes any necessary redactions. Finally, the package goes back to the analyst, who assesses any fees for searches and copies. The analyst then sends the document with a cover letter to the requester.”

Needless to say, for historians who research foreign relations, FOIA is a nightmare. A survey of researchers undertaken in 2014 by the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations found that “at best,” the researchers “report an eight month to one year wait, but delays also range from two to four years, five to seven years, and longer. Some researchers report that requests are still pending after a decade or more. This has caused some researchers to give up, since they have finished their dissertations and books while still waiting for FOIA requests to be processed.”

The stories about delays are the stuff of legend among media and watchdog groups in Washington as well.

In 2007, the Center for Public Integrity requested documents from the State Department about political appointees serving as ambassadors. By 2011, the request was still unfulfilled. It received a letter from the State Department, the Center reported, saying it was “’undertaking a comprehensive effort’ to clear its backlog of requests and was thus writing to ‘inquire whether you are still interested in pursuing this case.'” The latter warned that “without a response within 45 days, the department will close the case and take no further action.”

In March 2010, the Associated Press first submitted requests for information pertaining to a variety of issues involving the Hillary Clinton State Department, including her schedule and “her department’s decision to grant a special position for longtime aide Huma Abedin.” In December 2014, the AP reported it had been informed that the department would not finish the request at least until April. “The 4-year-old FOIA request still has no estimated completion date,” it reported.

That’s nothing compared with the struggle, now in its 14th year, by the nonprofit National Security Archive to obtain some 1976 telephone conversation records involving Nixon administration Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The Archive said it sued the State Department earlier this week in pursuit of the materials.

So how long might the State Department take to plow through the Clinton e-mails, screening them for classified information, information about federal employees that might violate privacy laws, comments about foreign leaders that could compromise foreign relations and other assorted exemptions, of which there are nine broad categories?

Could it take as long as it’s taken to get the Kissinger records?

“My short answer is yes, it could take forever, if Kissinger’s telcons are any guide,” said Thomas S. Blanton, the National Security Archive’s director. On the other hand, he said in an e-mail to The Washington Post: “If you have a senior group of experienced folks with leverage behind them (statute, White House pressure, media pressure) they can review and release those 55,000 pages in a matter of a couple of months. … Our own experience, with hundreds of FOIA requests every year for 29 years at State, is that the line reviewers are way cautious, lots of unjustified withholding, but when we take the decision up a level, to the appeals panel, which is composed of ambassadors between assignments, we win release 75% of the time. Almost as if, these folks have already been confirmed by the Senate, they are willing to take command decisions, they see issues like classification and foreign leaders’ communications and personnel information as a matter of risk management, not zero tolerance. And they know the reality of massive over classification.

“So if you ask, how long will it take?  My answer is, as long or as short as the government desires.”
Related: As House panel issues subpoenas, questions mount over Clinton e-mails