— Domani Spero
The American Foreign Service Association was in the news yesterday after announcing that it will file a suit against the State Department if, by end of business day today, it does not get the certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees (see AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).
The topic made it to today’s Daily Press Briefing with the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki answering questions about AFSA’s FOIA requests for these documents which were reportedly filed on July 29, 2013 and a second request filed on February 28, 2014. Ms. Psaki refused to make a prediction of whether State would respond to AFSA’s request by the close of business today.
At about 3pm EST, ABC News tweeted that AFSA is giving the State Department until tomorrow morning to furnish the requested “Certificates of Documented Competency” for ambassador nominees.
When you look at that AFSA FOIA request delay of 7 months and a week, it might be useful to note that in FY2012, the State Department’s total requests in backlog is 10,464. In fact, according to foia.gov, State has one of the highest backlogs, second only to DHS. In FY 2011, the average number of days to process a simple case was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years (see State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why). The oldest pending request, as you can see below is 1,922 days.
Here is the short version of the March 6, 2014 DPB:
Below is the long version from the March 6, 2014 DPB:
QUESTION: The American Foreign Service Association said yesterday that they were going to be filing suit against the State Department if, by end of business today, you don’t provide certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees. So I just wanted to know if you had any reaction to that.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, AFSA submitted a FOIA request on July 29th 2013 to our website – this is just some details for all of you to be aware of – seeking certificates of a demonstrated competence for every ambassador from January 1st 2013 to the present. We receive, as many of you know, about 18,000 FOIA requests per year. Generally – we generally process requests on a first in, first out basis. So we’re currently actively processing the request in accordance with the statute and the Department’s regulations, which applies to the specific release they put out yesterday.
In terms of broadly speaking, obviously, in nominating ambassadors, we look – the Administration looks for qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life and who show true zeal for serving their country, and we’ve received interest and recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds, whether they are Foreign Service – well, that’s – they proceed through a different process, there, of course, but political appointees who may be from the business sector, who may be from a public service sector. We feel that this kind of diversity helps represent who we are and the United States around the world.
So long story short, we are reviewing their request. We process requests as they come in. Certainly we welcome the comments of anyone and views of anyone on these sorts of issues, but I think it’s important to remind everyone of what we look at when it comes to ambassadorial nominees.
QUESTION: Jen, they submitted this request in July? How many months ago?
QUESTION: No, July 29th, she said.
QUESTION: I thought you said January.
MS. PSAKI: For every ambassador from January 20 —
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.
QUESTION: So how long should they expect to wait until you finish processing your request? And why should they even have to submit a FOIA request for this? Why wouldn’t you just – if they asked for it, why wouldn’t you just turn them over?
MS. PSAKI: They were asking for specific documents that are —
QUESTION: Right. But this is not an organization that has a questionable interest in this. It’s an organization that, in fact, represents – I mean, it is the – basically the union for Foreign Service officers, so it’s not really an outside party.
MS. PSAKI: Well, oftentimes, Matt, there’s a processing aspect that needs to take place with these requests, so —
QUESTION: Right, I’m sure that – I’m sure everyone is thrilled, everyone who’s ever filed a FOIA request to the State Department or any other government agency is thrilled, but I think that —
MS. PSAKI: There are many people who do. That’s part of the challenge in processing them.
QUESTION: Right. Okay, so you just threw this in the big pile, in the in-box with every single other request, even though they clearly have some – they have demonstrated interest in this subject. I don’t understand —
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t say we threw it in a pile, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, you did. You said you get 18,000 requests a year, so – and —
MS. PSAKI: We do. We process them.
QUESTION: So when they —
MS. PSAKI: But obviously, we’re working to review their request and see how we can meet it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But specifically they asked for it to be by the close of business tonight. Otherwise, they’re going to take their – take this to legal action.
MS. PSAKI: I understand that.
QUESTION: Are you saying that you will not be able to get it to them by end of day tonight?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a prediction of that. We’ll see what happens.
QUESTION: Just – can I have one —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Where – you are now processing this specific request, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: You’re actually looking at it and trying to satisfy it?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Okay. If you get 18,000 FOIA requests a year, what is the typical time lag for processing a request? Is it, as in this case, I guess, eight months or – is that typical or is it less, is it more?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any specific time breakdown for you. I’m happy to see if there’s anything like that we can provide.
QUESTION: And was this one —
MS. PSAKI: We’re – they’re about to start the press avail, but go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Was this one jumped to the front of the queue for any reason or no? It was processed —
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are cases where – and they asked for expedited processing, and some cases that question is asked. This didn’t satisfy the specific laid out standards for that, but we’re still working to see if we can process this as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But it was not – was it jumped ahead or no? Or it —
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re still working to see if we can process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: No, no, that’s not my question, though. My question is whether it got – I understand that they may have requested expedited processing —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: — and did not – denied it because they don’t meet the standards, which happens to a lot of people.
MS. PSAKI: And at the same time, we’re still working to expedite – to process this as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Right. Right. Right. No, but I’m sure you’re doing that with the other 17,199, right? I mean, the question is whether you are doing this faster.
MS. PSAKI: Specifically with this one, we are —
MS. PSAKI: — working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But quicker than everything – others’ stuff?
MS. PSAKI: It doesn’t work in that exact way, but we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: And Jen, they said that – AFSA said that they also filed a second FOIA request on February 28th.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So did they express to you their – because I know there was discussion between counsels.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: So was that part of the aspect, that they didn’t feel that the July request had been processed or addressed within a – expeditiously enough so that —
MS. PSAKI: You’d have to ask them that question. I’m not sure if they are basically about the same thing or not. So I’m happy to check, and you may want to check with them and see what the reason was for the second one.
QUESTION: These documents are – what they’re seeking or these certificates are not classified, are they?
MS. PSAKI: No, but they’re still internal files, and so obviously we go through a process —
QUESTION: Fair enough. But they’re for a very small number of people, 50. Do you have any idea how many pages one of these things is?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s every ambassadorial nominee for the last 14 months.
MS. PSAKI: So —
QUESTION: And how many – well, actually, it wouldn’t have been originally —
MS. PSAKI: 15?
QUESTION: No, because they filed it in July asking for every one that went back to January. So —
MS. PSAKI: But when you meet it, you’re abiding by what the FOIA request —
QUESTION: Fair enough. How many pages is one of these things?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a specific number of pages for you.
QUESTION: It seems to me like this is a very limited request from an organization that’s got a very, very important interest in this subject, and that frankly, they should, if they ask, should be allowed to see – without having to go to through the FOIA processing. Was there any – did – do you know – are you aware if they asked outside of FOIA to get this – to get these documents?
MS. PSAKI: They are closely engaged with our chief of staff and deputy secretary of state, and have a range of meetings. So I know that all of these issues have been discussed. In terms of this specific request, I can check if there’s anything we can share on that.
QUESTION: So in other words, you said no. They asked, you said no, you have to submit a FOIA? Is that —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not saying that’s how it all went down. I’m saying they have many channels for having discussions with people in the Administration. And if there’s more to share on whether they made this specific request outside of the FOIA request process, I’m happy to check into that.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea if there is a chance, even a remote chance, that the processing will be finished by 5 o’clock this afternoon?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to predict when it will be finished.
QUESTION: Well, I know, but —
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: I understand that. But is there a possibility that it could be done by 5 o’clock?
MS. PSAKI: There’s always a possibility.
QUESTION: There is. Okay.
QUESTION: How many nominees are we talking about? Have you got a figure?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a figure.
Well, then, tomorrow, maybe — or we’ll wonder who’ll stop the rain …
* * *
- AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again (diplopundit.net)
- Foreign Service Pros Threaten to Sue Over Ambassadors’ Competence (abcnews.go.com)
- State Department employees union demands documents on embattled ambassador nominees (washingtonpost.com)
- Diplomat union threatens suit over envoy creds (nzherald.co.nz)
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