Kerry Appoints Retired Diplomat Janice Jacobs as @StateDept’s “Email Czar”

Posted: 1:44 pm EDT
Updated: 7:08 pm EDT
Updated: Sept 9, 6:07 pm EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

Via CNN:

Secretary of State John Kerry has tapped a former career diplomat as an “email czar” to coordinate the State Department response to the myriad of document requests mostly related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which have strained the department’s resources, officials familiar with the appointment tell CNN.

Janice Jacobs will serve as Kerry’s State Department’s Transparency Coordinator, charged with responding to Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests faster and more efficiently and improving the State Department systems for keeping records.

.

.

A career diplomat, Janice Jacobs previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs from June 2008 to April 2014. She retired from the Foreign Service in April 2014 (see Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs to Retire Effective April 3). According to the State Department spokesperson, Ambassador Jacobs will will report directly to the Secretary and to Deputy Secretary Higginbottom, the deputy for management and resources. She won’t be embedded in a bureau but the State Department will “make sure that she has the administrative support that she needs to do her job.”  According to the spox, the plan going forward is that Ambassador Jacobs will have “regular meetings with both Deputy Secretary Higginbottom and the Secretary on a consistent, frequent basis to talk about what she’s learning, recommendations she wants to make. And then as the IG comes back with recommendations it intends to make, she will be responsible for helping the Department implement those. “

Secretary Kerry released the following statement on Ambassador Jacobs’ appointment:

Today, I am pleased to announce the appointment of Ambassador Janice Jacobs as the State Department’s Transparency Coordinator, charged with improving document preservation and transparency systems.

Ambassador Jacobs will lead Departmental efforts to meet the President’s Managing Government Records Directive, to respond to recommendations from the review I asked the Department’s Inspector General to launch earlier this year, and to work with other agencies and the private sector to explore best practices and new technologies. I have also asked her to focus on improving our systems for responding to Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests faster and more efficiently.

As I have repeatedly made clear, we have a fundamental obligation to document the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and to produce our records in response to requests from the public and Congress. Our records, and our ability to share them, serve as testament to our commitment to transparency and open government. I take very seriously that responsibility, and so does everyone else at the State Department.

I am grateful for the work being done by scores of people across the Department who continue to support the unprecedented number of requests we are facing — a three-fold increase in Freedom of Information requests alone since 2008 or the numerous requests for information from members of Congress.

However, it is clear that our systems and our resources are straining to keep pace with the growing number of records we create and the expanding demand for access to them. It is time to take further action. I want the Department to lead on these issues, to set and achieve a new standard for our efforts, and harness new technological tools in order to meet our commitments. To reach that goal, we must think boldly and creatively. As we enhance our records management system, we also intend to fundamentally improve our ability to respond to requests for our records.

Ambassador Jacobs is exactly the right person for this job. She not only has a distinguished record of service in the State Department, but she also has a track record of successfully leading critical reform efforts: she reorganized the Visa Office after 9/11 and reformed how the Department engages with law enforcement and intelligence communities to share information. As my Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, she also led efforts to meet the Administration’s new visa issuance goals. She is a proven leader who knows how to run large organizations and produce results.

I am grateful she has agreed to take this on. She will have not only my full support, but that of the Department as well.

#

September 9, 2015

.

According to Politico, the State Department spokesperson, John Kirby expressed some indignance that Jacobs — a career foreign service officer — was being faulted for a political donation she made, especially after leaving the government.

“This is the United States of America. It’s a democracy. People are allowed to do these kinds of things,” Kirby said. “That’s a very bad place to be if we’re going to start criticizing people for campaign contributions that they make in their private time, in retirement no less. I just don’t think that’s the place we want to be as a country.”

Read more of that here.

#

Advertisements

FOIA Access to Information Scorecard 2015: State Department Gets an “F”

Posted: 5:27 pm EDT
Updated: March 13, 8:54 pm EDT, WSJ video added
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Yesterday, we did a snapshot of the FOIA operation in FY2014 based on the State Department’s annual reporting.

The following excerpt extracted from Making the Grade, Access to Information Scorecard 2015 (pdf)  originally published by the Center for Effective Government. To support their work, please check them out here.

A building block of American democracy is the idea that citizens have a right to information
about how their government works and what it does in their name. An informed citizenry is a key component of a healthy democracy. And without detailed information about what government does, citizens can’t hold their elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions.

These values were codified into law in 1966 with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This law gives anyone a right to request information from government agencies
and requires agencies to promptly provide that information unless disclosure would harm a “specifically protected interest” established by law; protecting the personal privacy rights of individuals is one such interest. Over the years, millions of citizens have benefitted from the law’s disclosure of information about the safety of consumer products, environmental health risks in their communities, and public spending.

[…]

This is the second year the Center for Effective Government has conducted an in-depth analysis of FOIA implementation for the 15 federal agencies that together received over 90 percent of all the freedom of information requests in 2012 and 2013 (the most recent years for which data is available).

Image from Center for Effective Government

Image from Center for Effective Government

  • The Department of State score (37 percent) was particularly dismal. While its website is a bright spot for the agency (with a solid 80 percent on that sub-score), its 23 percent processing score is completely out of line with any other agency’s performance.
  • The State Department was the only agency in the scorecard whose rules do not require staff to notify requesters when processing is delayed, even though this is mandated by law.
  • While 65 percent of its requests were simple, only eight percent were processed within the required 20 days. The State Department had the second-largest request backlog and the third-lowest rate of fully-granted requests. Only 51 percent of requests were granted in full or in part at the State Department. The agency also had the longest average processing time for appeals – 540 days, or roughly a year and a half – and the second-largest backlog of appeals.

[grabpress_video guid=”374496bf6029a53445c667a400b368f57886f9d4″]

 #

State Dept Responds to an FOIA Two Years After Request — Confusion and Hilarity Follows

— Domani Spero

One of our blog readers asked us about the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA). Nope, we don’t know much about it except the (b)(6) exemptions which resulted on the redactions of OIG inspectors names from publicly available reports posted online.  In  October 2013, State/OIG finally started disclosing the names of inspectors in publicly available reports, so yay for that.

But because we’re a curious cat, we wanted to know why he was asking us about the FOIA. It turned out, our reader submitted a FOIA request to the State Department in 2012.  He wanted to know about “Meetings between Jeff Gorsky and the AILA.”  Mr. Gorsky is the Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion Section of the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs and AILA is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the national association of more than 13,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. Our reader, Mr. Requester, shared the confirmation of his FOIA request from 2012:

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

After repeated inquiries and prodding, and after almost two years of waiting, a response finally arrived in Mr. Requester’s mail box this year. Note that the subject of the FOIA request is “Jeff Gorsky and the AILA” and the official State Department response to the FOIA request came from Mr. Gorsky himself. Take a look:

Screen Shot 2014-04-21

What the hey?

Is it normal or routine that the subject of the FOIA request is also the signatory of the letter that basically says we found 42 documents but they all contain information that is “personal in nature?”

I don’t know, is it?  Help me out here.  These are presumably from work emails, how can they all be “personal in nature?”

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

Note: FOIA Exemption (b)(6) – permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Is it bizarre or is it just totally expected that the responding office (b)(6)’ed just about every name that appears on the documents released?  In handwritten notations that look messy and all?  What’s the use of filing an FOIA if all you get are these scrawny (b)(6)s?  The email above concerns a meeting request on “L1 Visas in Singapore.” So, the names of all  pertinent parties to that meeting are also “personal in nature?”

Processing … processing ….screeeccch bang kaplunga!  Ugh! I don’t get it; I must be, like… like….like, a malfunctioned magnet*.

Folks, the White House publishes online its Visitor Access Records, and heavens help them, there are lots of names listed there; some even include middle names!

On March 16, 2009, just as the new president came to office, the State Department’s Bureau of Administration released an FOIA Guidance from the Secretary of State to the department employees.  In says in part:

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda on openness in government – one ushering in a new era of transparency in government, the other ordering a presumption of disclosure in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The State Department will be at the forefront of making this commitment a reality.
[…]
As a Department, we should respond to requests in a timely manner, resolve doubts in favor of openness, and not withhold information based on speculative or abstract fears.
[…]
We need every Department employee to manage the challenge of informing the public and protecting information in a way that fulfills the President’s strong commitment to transparency.

Well, what about that, huh?

In any case, the Department of Justice FOIA Guide on Exemption 6 notes that “Personal privacy interests are protected by two provisions of the FOIA, Exemptions 6 and 7(C). … Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (1)

The Guide also says that “In some instances, the disclosure of information might involve no invasion of privacy because, fundamentally, the information is of such a nature that no expectation of privacy exists. (49) For example, civilian federal employees generally have no expectation of privacy regarding their names, titles, grades, salaries, and duty stations as employees (50) or regarding the parts of their successful employment applications that show their qualifications for their positions.” (51)

Also this: “if the information at issue is particularly well known or is widely available within the public domain, there generally is no expectation of privacy. “

You should know that we have no expertise on FOIAs. But the State Department on this FOIA case managed to use the (b)(6) exemption to redact the names of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular and that “Desk Officer for Singapore Visa matters.”

Here’s a person of the street question: Why would anyone think that disclosing Janice J. Jacobs‘ name as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consulate Consular Affairs (she is on Wikipedia, by the way) would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy?” 

C’mon, folks, you gotta admit, this is totally hilarious!

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

Let’s compare this to the  emails released under FOIA on the Keystone XL meetings. Also redacted but as you can see on the emails here, the State Department did not use the (b)(6) exemption and instead used (b)(5) which protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” But look how this is marked:

Screen Shot 2014-04-22

Click on image to read the released emails.

The FOIA super ninja we consulted (thanks J!) suggested that an immediate appeal be filed.  Mr. Requester told us he already sent in an appeal.  We just hope the response to his appeal would not take two years, and would not include scrawny (b)(6)s for decorations.

Seriously. Do you realize  that if the State Department continue to slap (b)(6)s on FOIA’ed docs so thoughtlessly like this, that the agency will be at the forefront of making President Obama’s commitment to “transparency in government” and “presumption of disclosure” a laughing matter? Pardon me, it is already a laughing matter?  Well, a  competition then on who will be at the forefront.  

Folks, you need to fix this or we may be forced to start a rock band called Twisted Hilarity.    

* * *

 

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

State Dept Releases Part of FOIA’ed Ambo Credentials — Showing Soon Online? Mm-hmm.

— Domani Spero

On March 7, the State Department released the “certificates of demonstrated competence” requested by AFSA on July 29, 2013. The fulfilled request did not include the second FOIA request filed on February 28, 2014.  The DPB extract below also has brief FOIA data for FY2013, which we did not have when we blogged about this case yesterday (State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It.

Two sources confirmed to us that AFSA has these documents and is reviewing them. These “certificates” or “reports” are typically a page long, as previously described in our post here (AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).  It is our understanding that these docs released today are just bio data and are not confidential.  We’ll have to wait and see whether AFSA would share these “certificates” with their members, and the public by posting them as a subsection of the ambassadors page on its website.

Via DPB, March 7, 2014:

QUESTION: Do you have any update on whether you’ve given the certificates of demonstrated competence to the AFSA representatives?

MS. PSAKI: I do. We have – as I mentioned yesterday, there were two different FOIA requests. So we have fulfilled the requests meeting the July FOIA. That was from – requested from January – January 1st, 2013 to the present time, meaning to when it was – when the process of looking at it began, which means it’s through November. So that is a request we’ve met. The February request is separate. We just received it last week. As I said yesterday, and as is the case in any FOIA, we’re working to process that.

QUESTION: Now, when you say fulfilled, does that mean that you agreed and handed over those certificates —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — unredacted?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any details on that, but just to – and I know somebody asked this question yesterday, but it’s an important note here because I looked into this. These documents that they’re asking for are about a page or two pages long.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: They are certainly not reflective of the qualifications or even that extensive of a background or any – of any of the individuals.

QUESTION: Right, which kind of begs the question as to why it took so – if they’re only a page or two long, why it takes so long to go – anyway. But —

MS. PSAKI: Well, they only —

QUESTION: — when was —

MS. PSAKI: To answer another one of your questions, Matt —

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: — because I aim to please here —

QUESTION: Uh-huh, yeah.

MS. PSAKI: — the request was not made informally or through any other channels —

QUESTION: Before?

MS. PSAKI: — but through the FOIA. Correct, through the FOIA process.

QUESTION: Would they – oh, I suppose this is a hypothetical question, but would – does it – are – could they have gotten it through an informal request? Or do you – would you have demanded that they go through the FOIA route to get them?

MS. PSAKI: I can’t answer that question. I mean, it’s impossible to answer.

QUESTION: Right. And then —

MS. PSAKI: But we do try to provide information —

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: — and work closely with AFSA.

QUESTION: And when was it fulfilled as – the way —

MS. PSAKI: I’d have to double check on that. I believe it was this morning, but let me double check on that and make sure that’s true.

QUESTION: It was this morning. So you missed their deadline. You were hoping for a little leeway, kind of like the Israelis and the Palestinians.

MS. PSAKI: I’ll check and make sure, Matt. Well, they certainly know when we met it or didn’t meet it, right?

QUESTION: Well, right. I know. Okay.

MS. PSAKI: It’s not a secret to them.

QUESTION: So we need to ask them if they’re satisfied with —

MS. PSAKI: And I can check – well, I can check too when – if it was last night or this morning.

QUESTION: How many tickets – how many tickets were there?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any numbers for you. It was any that were applicable in that timeframe.

QUESTION: Do you have in front of you – and I know the building has put these together, but I don’t know if it’s made its way to you – the response to the question that I asked yesterday, just to get it on the record, for how long it takes on average to respond to FOIA requests for the State Department?

MS. PSAKI: I do, Arshad.

QUESTION: I am delighted. Let’s —

MS. PSAKI: Get excited, it’s a Friday.

QUESTION: Let’s put this on the record. (Laughter.) Excellent.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. In Fiscal Year 2013, the average time to process a simple request was 106 days. In the same fiscal year, the average time to process a complex request was 533 days. To show just a factual point here on efforts to improve, in Fiscal Year 2013, the Department received over 18,000 FOIA requests and processed over 21,000. So we processed more than we received, meaning we’re trying to speed up the process.

QUESTION: So – and I had one other question about that, which is that implies that there is a big backlog that you were able to – right?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

 

* * *

Enhanced by Zemanta

State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It

— 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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06

Here is the short version of the March 6, 2014 DPB:

Screen Shot 2014-03-06

via Word It Out

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: January.

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 —

QUESTION: Yeah.

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.

Ali.

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.

QUESTION: Right.

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 …

 

* * *

Enhanced by Zemanta

State Dept refused to name its SGEs because of reasons #1, #2, #3, #4 and … oh right, the Privacy Act of 1974

— Domani Spero

Last week, ProPublica posted this: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say.  We blogged about it here: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good? Today, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has more on the subject. And after months of giving one reason or another to the reporters pursuing this case, the State Department is down to its Captain America shield  — the Privacy Act of 1974.

Below excerpted from POGO: State Dept. Won’t Name Advisers Already in Government’s Public Database:

They’ve all been selected to advise the State Department on foreign policy issues. Their names are listed on the State Department’s website.

So why won’t the Department disclose that these individuals are special government employees (SGEs)?

For four months, State has refused to name its SGEs, ProPublica reported last week, leaving the public to guess which outside experts are advising the Department on matters that affect the public’s interest.

Yet, the Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers identified as SGEs in an online government database. In other words, some of the information that State has been refusing to provide is hiding in plain sight.
[…]
State has refused to identify any of its special employees, even though most agencies contacted by ProPublica were easily able to provide a list of their SGEs.

First, a State spokeswoman told ProPublica her agency “does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

When ProPublica filed a request seeking the list of names under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was told the agency doesn’t keep such a list, and State’s FOIA office refused to track down the information because it would require “extensive research.”

In September, ProPublica told State it planned to report that the Department was refusing to provide a list of names. In response, State said the FOIA request “was being reopened” and that the records would be provided “in a few weeks,” according to ProPublica.

“The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list,” ProPublica reported last week. “It has been four months since we filed the original request.”

On Friday, a State official told The Washington Post that the Department is “diligently working to resolve” the FOIA request. The official cited concerns about “maintaining employee protections of privacy.”

State’s posture over the past several months is at odds with POGO’s finding: why can’t the Department give the press the same information it already supplied to a public database?

“Disclosure of certain employee information is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974,” Alec Gerlach, a State spokesperson, told POGO. “That some information may already be publicly available does not absolve the Department of Privacy Act requirements. Whether someone is an SGE is Privacy Act-protected information that we would not release except through the FOIA process.”

However, one of the authors of ProPublica’s story questioned why State hasn’t turned over the requested records. “I think anytime a government agency won’t reveal information, it raises questions about why they aren’t,” Liz Day, ProPublica’s Director of Research, told POGO.

Holy mother of god of distraught spoxes!  Okay, please, try not to laugh. It is disturbing to watch this type of contortion, and it seems to be coming regularly these days from Foggy Bottom.

Seriously.  If this is about the Privacy Act of 1974, why wasn’t ProPublica told of this restriction four months ago? And does that mean that all other agencies who released their SGE names were in violation of the Privacy Act of 1974?

Also, State/OIG was told that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  A State Department spokeswoman told ProPublica that there are “about 100” such employees.  But what do you know?  The Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers (excel download file) identified as SGEs in an online government database. Are there more? How many more?

The list does not include the more famous SGEs of the State Department previously identified in news report.

New message from Mission Command:  “Good morning, Mr. Hunt (or whoever is available). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the retrieval of very Special Government Employee (SGE) names. There are more than a hundred names but no one knows how many more.  They are padlocked in the Privacy Act of 1974 vault, guarded by a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Asia Minor. PA1974 vault location is currently in Foggy Bottom.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, everybody with a badge will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.  If not, well, find a match and burn.”

* * *

 

 

 

 

Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good?

— Domani Spero

Via ProPublica:

So who else is a special government employee at the State Department? The department won’t say — even as eight other federal agencies readily sent us lists of their own special government employees.

A State Department spokeswoman did confirm that there are “about 100” such employees. But asked for a list, she added that, “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

Meanwhile, after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July for the same information, State responded in September that no such list actually exists: The human resources department “does not compile lists of personnel or positions in the category of ‘special government employee.’”

Creating such a list would require “extensive research” and thus the agency is not required to respond under FOIA, said a letter responding to our request.

In late September, after we told State we were going to publish a story on its refusal to provide the list, the agency said our FOIA request was being reopened. The agency said it would provide the records in a few weeks.

The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list. It has been four months since we filed the original request.

Continue reading, Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say

ProPublica notes that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, ex-chief of staff Cheryl Mills, and Maggie Williams have been identified previously in news reports as SGEs.  That means the State Department only needs to track down 97 other SGEs. Unless, of course, it wishes to provide a fullsome list and include previous SGEs during the Clinton and Rice tenures at the State Department. Oh, but wait a minute — if State is not tracking how many SGEs it has working there, how did it come up with the round figure of 100?

Anyway, another great mystery of the hour is this: How come other agencies are able to disclose this information but not the State Department?  That has not been properly explained.  Special Government Employees maybe special but they are still public employees.

Very special ones, of course.  According to U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an SGE’s agency can use special waiver provisions to resolve financial conflicts of interest arising under 18 U.S.C. § 208 (a criminal conflict of interest statute prohibiting an employee from participating in any particular Government matter affecting personal or “imputed” financial interests). An SGE is not covered by 5 U.S.C. app. 4 §§ 501 or 502 (civil statutes limiting outside earned income and restricting certain outside employment and affiliations). 5 C.F.R. § 2635.807 (a regulatory provision concerning the acceptance of compensation for certain teaching, speaking and writing) also applies differently to SGEs.

The USOGE explains why this category of government employees is different:

Some ethics provisions that apply to executive branch employees apply differently to an employee who qualifies as a “special Government employee” (SGE), or do not apply at all.

Congress created the SGE category in 1962 when it revised the criminal conflict of interest statutes. Congress recognized the need to apply appropriate conflict of interest restrictions to experts, consultants, and other advisers who serve the Government on a temporary basis. On the other hand, Congress also determined that the Government cannot obtain the expertise it needs if it requires experts to forego their private professional lives as a condition of temporary service. Since 1962, the SGE category has been used in a number of statutes and regulations as a means of tailoring the applicability of some restrictions.

As defined in 18 U.S.C. § 202, an SGE is an officer or employee who is retained, designated, appointed, or employed to perform temporary duties, with or without compensation, for not more than 130 days during any period of 365 consecutive days. The SGE category should be distinguished from other categories of individuals who serve executive branch agencies but who are not employees, such as independent contractors (who are generally not covered by the ethics laws and regulations at all).

State/OIG released its Review of the Department of State Ethics Program in September 2013.  That report indicates that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  These are “filers” of  OGE Form 450, Confidential Financial Disclosure Report and OGE Form 278, Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report. Unfortunately, no list of SGE names.  But the fortunate thing about the bureaucracy is paperwork!  While HR may not “compile” a list of this category of employees, surely its Designated Agency Ethics Official have access to this information? If not, where are the paper trails of OGE Form 450s and 278s. Would tracking those require “extensive research”?

Other notable items from the report:

  • In a 2012 report, the Office of Government Ethics was critical of the Department of State’s Ethics Program, noting backlogs in processing financial disclosure reports and ethics agreements, problems with ethics training, and insufficient staff. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure, a division within the Office of the Legal Adviser, had largely eliminated the backlogs by the end of 2012. However, the Office of Government Ethics report expressed concern about the Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure’s limited resources to process a workload that is consistently higher than that of other agencies.
  • In 2012 the Department of State provided annual ethics training to less than 70 percent of those employees required to complete it. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure implemented an online training module in late 2012 that will make ethics training more easily available to employees, but the Department of State does not have a definitive plan to increase the percentage of employees taking the training.
  • The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure is not systematically tracking ethics agreements to ensure that employees comply with the provisions.1 The database used by the office is incomplete and does not include important relevant information.
  • The Department of State does not have a consistent definition of who is required to file confidential financial disclosure reports. This shortcoming has a negative impact on the entire ethics program.

Screen Shot 2013-11-13

PAS – Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed

The same OIG report also says “Other personnel, such as Schedule C employees and some special government employees, must also file public financial disclosure reports. These individuals are usually readily identifiable from their employment mechanisms and documents.”

Well, darn it, back to HR. Unless, of course, the State Department’s HR Bureau knows nothing about such “employment mechanisms and documents”?

Special Government Employee is a category created by Congress. It is perfectly legal to have SGEs working at government offices.   Other agencies like Treasury, Energy  and Commerce have their own SGEs and were forthcoming (well, after FOIA) with the information. Look, the Energy Department has 8 pages of SGEs. The Securities and Exchange Commission even included the annual salary of its sole SGE.  And  the State Department says with a straight face “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”  

Blink.  C’mon.  Really?

Please don’t make this another case of It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat!

The State Department’s SGEs, presumably approved by the agency and its legal and/or ethics office ought to withstand public scrutiny.   Sharper bulbs at State should counsel, whoever is making these decisions, to disclose the agency’s SGE list.  Otherwise, the State Department need to explain why,the non-disclosure of its very special government employees is for the public good.

Yes, we’d like to know why “not knowing” is for our own good, and then we’ll call it quits.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why

State/OIG recently published its inspection of the Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS) located in the Bureau of Administration.   IPS is responsible for the Department’s records management and related technologies, including public access to information under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, privacy information and protection and classification management and review, including declassification. The IPS office according to the OIG inspectors has no overseas locations. A director leads a staff of 358 employees, including 152 Civil Service employees, 184 when actually employed (WAE) staff members, and 22 student interns.

The OIG notes that IPS plays a critical role in the Department’s communication with the public:

“By providing citizens access to the Department’s records, the office is instrumental in maintaining openness and transparency in the conduct of foreign affairs.”

Openness and transparency okay but nothing about promptness

“The Department’s FOIA process is inefficient and ineffective. IPS’s backlog of 6,950 cases continues to grow. A relatively small staff is processing the heavy volume of requests and dealing with new software. Delays in responses from other bureaus, offices, and agencies contribute to the problem. The Department receives among the highest number of FOIA requests in the U.S. Government. In FY 2011, IPS reported that it received 14,262 requests, in addition to the 21,252 requests already pending at the beginning of the year. IPS employees processed 26,802 requests during the year, leaving 8,712 pending. IPS reported that in FY 2011, the average number of days to process simple cases was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years.”

According to http://www.foia.gov/ the State Department is second only to DHS in its ranking of federal agencies with the highest FOIA request backlog.  State/IPS average response time to a simple FOIA request in FY2011 is 156 days, its highest number of days to respond is 1,603.  The highest response time for complex cases is 2,460 days and for expedited cases is 1,802 days.

POGO points out that it takes State and USAID “on average seven times longer to process a simple FOIA request than the 20-day legal limit for simple requests” because as “they have to gather records from “hundreds of posts throughout the world” and “missions in over 80 countries.”

If it would make you feel better, click here for the Department of State FOIA Backlog Reduction Plan way back in 2008 with colorful graphics.

Below are some of the OIG report’s key judgments:

  • Leadership and management practices contribute to problematic morale and poor communication across the Bureau of Administration, Global Information Services, Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS). Management controls in IPS are insufficient, indicating leadership and management deficiencies in many parts of the organization.
  • The main responsibilities of IPS include managing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and declassification programs, administering the Privacy Act, and conducting records management. Lack of cooperation from the Department of State (Department) and internal weakness hamper IPS’s performance of these duties.
  • IPS handles one of the largest FOIA workloads in the Federal Government. However, IPS’s lack of a sound process to develop its information systems led to delayed and flawed deployment of the Freedom of Information Document Managing System 2 (FREEDOMS 2), IPS’s key software for managing cases, resulting in significant backlogs.

This is the same system that State’s Annual FOIA Report dated March 2012 says is “designed to more efficiently and effectively perform case processing functions.”

State’s Chief FOIA Officer is Joyce Barr, the Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Administration. IPS is headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Margaret P. Grafeld who assumed post on September 2010. The director and deputy director of IPS are Sheryl L. Walter and Alex Galovich respectively.

The little devils in the fine details

  • Personnel in Department bureaus who serve as liaisons to IPS are normally staff assistants or others for whom FOIA responsibilities are a small part of their job. Their lack of responsiveness indicates that performance in handling FOIA requests is not a significant factor their evaluations. Even if it were, the Department has not developed performance standards for responding to IPS’s requests for documents. IPS does not report to the upper levels of the Department about the responsiveness of bureaus and embassies on FOIA. To improve the Department’s FOIA performance, the Department must fix responsibility at all stages of the process.
  • Persistent neglect of fundamental leadership responsibilities and management practices has had profound consequences in IPS. The OIG team’s observations, discussions with IPS staff, and the responses to OIG’s questionnaires indicated an office with problematic morale, perceptions of favoritism, micromanagement practices, and confused lines of authority. Inspectors found failures of communication, lack of training, questionable staffing decisions, and poor time and attendance record keeping. IPS’s new director is just beginning to address the many challenges that she faces.  Many suggest that poor morale stems from frequently changing priorities and excessive workload. REDACTED
  • Communication among all levels of IPS staff is poor. Division chiefs are located on the same floor in order to strengthen communication within higher-level management. This physical arrangement limits managers from seeing what their employees are doing on a daily basis, however. IPS leadership told the OIG team that they plan to change this arrangement with the building renovation, currently in process, which will colocate managers with members of their staff.

Is it just us or does it seem like when there is a negative report, things are often just in the cusp or the verge of change?  Apparently a new director is addressing the problem and the office’s physical arrangements will be changed with the building renovation.  Which should happen soon.


Despite the huge backlog, staffers go on excursion tours … to Brazil …to Brazil

“IPS recently allowed several staffers who process FOIA requests to take excursion tours in Brazil to assist in visa processing. At a time when IPS has a large backlog of cases, it is unwise to divert staff to other duties.”

In her Chief FOIA Officer March 12, 2012 Annual Report, Ms. Barr reports that “Comprehensive quarterly training is provided to employees who review documents in response to FOIA requests.” And that “Staffing has remained the same. Any vacant positions were filled during the year.”

The OIG report on staff development, training, staffing gaps

  • IPS management has not made staff development a priority because of the heavy workload. Some employees noted that the only training they have received during their tenure in IPS is on-the-job training and that they receive minimal constructive feedback regarding performance.
  • IPS does not have a plan to manage retirements and fill vacancies promptly. Since 2009, 69 employees have retired or resigned. Three division head positions and one branch chief position were vacant at the time of the inspection, one since 2007. The deputy director, in addition to his other duties, serves as acting head for all of those offices. This situation is unacceptable. These offices handle a significant part of the workload for IPS and require consistent, full-time leadership. However, IPS used funding for these positions to hire new full-time equivalents at lower grades.

All together now — Sister Sledge sings “We are family ….”

  • IPS employs an unusually large percentage of WAEs and contractors. The presence of these experienced employees, who work under a flexible system, is a source of strength to the organization. However, the OIG team identified multiple occasions when WAEs reached their hour or salary caps, and IPS rehired them under a contract so that they could continue performing the same work. It is not permissible for an employee on a temporary appointment who reaches his or her hourly or salary cap to continue work as a contractor performing the same duties.10 This practice can result in violations of Federal employee ethical standards and related criminal laws.
  • At the time of the inspection, three former deputy directors and one former senior advisor of IPS were working as contractors. The common perception among IPS staff is that only certain employees are provided this opportunity. The OIG team found several cases of immediate family members of IPS employees working in the office. Several employees raised the issue of nepotism in questionnaires or interviews with inspectors, and staff thought that family members have an advantage in the office. Some of these same family members were interns in the IPS student program before they received a full-time position with the Department.

Trickle up Awards Program Sounds Familiar?

  • IPS has an active awards program, but many employees noted that its implementation appears unfair. A few upper-level management employees appeared to receive consistent high-dollar cash awards in the past 3 years, but division staff at lower grade levels did not receive corresponding amounts. According to staff members, many believe that only a select group of individuals in IPS receives awards each year.

More not so fun details:

  • Many position descriptions have not been updated recently, with some dating from 1990.
  • IPS cannot identify how many records the Department creates.
  • IPS cannot account for hard-copy records that domestic bureaus and overseas posts should be sending on a regular basis to the records service center.
  • Despite the large number of hard-copy documents IPS reproduces, the office lacks copy machines that can handle the volume required.
  • In the absence of an accurate inventory, AAS was only able to estimate the levels of idle equipment as between 70 and 125 workstations.
  • SMART [State Messaging and Archival Retrieval Toolset] captured 61,156 of an estimated 15 million record emails in the system that should be captured.
  • An estimated 13,000 cubic feet of retired records are past due for destruction.
  • IPS issues office-specific security badges to its own employees […] Issuance of the IPS-specific badges is excessive and a waste of resources.

The Chief FOIA Officer reports that “Due to its global structure and the nature of its record holdings, the Department faces great challenges in achieving full compliance with the time limits of the FOIA.”  But don’t you worry, she insists in her annual report that “it remains committed to achieving the fullest possible compliance, with the greatest level of customer service.”

Related items:

Inspection of the Bureau of Administration, Global Information Services, Office of Information Programs and Services Report Number ISP-I-12-54, September 2012

State Department Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Annual Report | March 12, 2012