As the election season accelerates, requests for public information from the State Department surrounding communications from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have hit speed bumps.
A review of publicly available records requests from users of the transparency site MuckRock shows that inquiries related to the Democratic presidential nominee are more likely to be delayed until after the election than other requests to the State Department — a trend government watchdogs say highlights the challenges the government has faced under President Obama to live up to its transparency aims.
Though the files reviewed by IBT constitute just a fraction of the tens of thousands of inquiries the State Department processes annually — too few, experts said, to establish any sign of deliberate obstruction — they underscore the difficulty of probing Clinton’s tenure as the top U.S. diplomat, even as interest in her record mounts.
“There’s no question that the State Department is struggling,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at the advocacy group Demand Progress. “That said, these are matters of great public importance,” he added, highlighting the Obama administration’s conflicted record on transparency.
Four of the five Clinton-related records requests maintained at MuckRock have been given approximate due dates after the election in early November. These include a request filed by International Business Times Senior Investigations Editor David Sirota regarding Clinton’s contested record on trade issues, reported Monday. The fifth request has passed its estimated May completion date and has yet to be updated.
By contrast, of 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests updated in the past three weeks by the State Department, only half had been postponed until after the 2016 presidential election, receiving estimated completion dates in October or earlier.
“The State Department handles FOIA requests in an entirely nonpartisan manner,” Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement. “The State Department is not seeking to prevent the release of material related to former Secretary Clinton,” he said, adding that completion dates are strictly estimates and subject to change.
Though the agency has fulfilled numerous Clinton-related requests in the past year, spokespeople declined to specify how many outstanding inquiries into Clinton records remain or how many responses are due before the election.
“Historically, the State Department takes a long time to respond, either claiming they have a backlog or they have so many offices to correspond with,” Anne Weismann, executive director of the Campaign For Accountability, said. A records request filed by Weismann in 2012 played a pivotal role in the discovery of Clinton’s private server.
Yet Weismann said political interference at the agency is unlikely. “The State Department’s handling of FOIA requests is under such scrutiny from the courts that I would find it pretty stupid of them to purposely postpone,” she said.
Still, it is “the nature of government and politics” that some inquiries face steeper delays than others, according to David Cuillier, professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. “I suspect that is a trend with all politicians,” Cuillier told IBT in an email, citing research that shows politically sensitive requests tend to take longer.
In recent months the State Department’s bureaucratic apparatus has buckled under a record wave of inquiries and an 84 percent spike in FOIA-related lawsuits. Much of the burden stems from the 55,000-page trove of documents in Clinton’s controversial private email server, established during her time as secretary of state, which attracted at least 300 records requests for the agency to consider last year.
The State Department recently divulged that the FOIA glut has been “compounded by the fact that a significant portion of … FOIA-processing resources are currently devoted to reviewing for public release the collection” of Clinton emails, which the agency published in batches over the last year.
Despite adding dozens of staffers to its FOIA offices, the State Department argued in court that it would take 75 years to complete a review of documents related to the Republican National Committee’s sweeping request of records for former Clinton aides.
But it isn’t all external pressures hobbling the State Department. A scathing agency audit earlier this year into the agency’s processes found “procedural weaknesses” leading to “inaccurate and incomplete” responses. The State Department, on average, takes the longest among government agencies to complete simple requests: 111 days.
But Lauren Harper, a researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said even that protracted timeline is ambitious for Clinton emails.
“The 111-day average is virtually never something we've experienced, in part because our requests are almost always considered complicated,” Harper said. “None of the Clinton-related requests are going to simple.”
Three of the Clinton-related FOIA requests in the MuckRock database have been active since March 2015. The IBT records request was filed in July of that year.
Complicating matters is the fact that Clinton emails must face review not only from the State Department, but also from any other government agency that feels it has a stake in disclosure of the contents. The intelligence community has played a particularly active role in scrutinizing the cache, retroactively marking dozens of Clinton emails classified. More than 2,000 documents have been kept from public view over secrecy concerns.
The White House is one of the government offices that gets to view documents, and watchdogs have accused the executive branch of delaying the release of politically sensitive material. Though Obama launched his presidency with a promise to be the “most transparent” in history, his administration has had a fitful record on openness — earlier this year, Vice News reported that executive officials worked to undermine congressional FOIA reforms.