- 19 января, 02:23
- POLITICO. Top Stories
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is extending by 90 days his unusual effort to clear the State Department’s huge backlog of public records requests—a project that has saddled some career diplomats and civil servants with mundane clerical tasks that they call demoralizing and possibly even designed to make them quit.
The decision was announced in a Jan. 5 email to State officials that was shown to POLITICO. It comes as conservative groups such as Judicial Watch continue to press the department to release more of former Secretary of State’s Hillary Clinton’s emails under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Tillerson first announced what the department is calling a “FOIA Surge” in mid-October, characterizing it as part of his commitment to transparency, but many State staffers suspect the effort is actually related to Clinton’s emails.
State staffers were told that Tillerson wanted to clear a backlog of some 13,000 open records requests by the end of 2017. Many State officials called that goal implausible, even with dozens of extra State employees from other departments assigned to expedite the process. They were correct.
“While we have made significant progress, it is clear that we need to keep FOIA Surge resources longer to leverage the training investment and recent acceleration of progress in reducing the FOIA backlog,” Bill Todd, a top human resources official at State, wrote in the email laying out the 90-day extension.
Many of the hundreds of State employees assigned some form of FOIA duty are interns and other lower-level officials. But some have held top diplomatic and other positions and were stunned to be tasked with what are essentially clerical duties.
“The ones who are pulled into it against their will are not happy,” one affected employee said.
Many State staffers believe Tillerson is seeking to appease President Donald Trump’s fixation on Clinton’s emails—although it is unclear how many the State Department still possesses that are unclassified and can be publicly released.
Other officials see the initiative as a make-work exercise designed to induce them to quit as Tillerson tries to cut State’s budget and streamline its staff.
The State Department is a favorite target for open records requests by journalists, activists and other members of the public. Its sluggish response to such requests has drawn heightened scrutiny since revelations in 2015 that Clinton used a private email server while serving as secretary of state.
Todd’s memo said the ramped-up open-records processing has reduced State’s backlog of requests by 17 percent, although it was not clear whether he was basing that off the original 13,000 cases Tillerson mentioned.
Asked for details and formal comment on the FOIA surge, a State Department spokesperson said only: “The department has made significant progress in addressing our FOIA backlog and will continue until the backlog has been cleared.”
Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, hailed Tillerson’s FOIA surge when it was unveiled last year. But his group has continued to apply legal pressure on State to release the Clinton emails faster, despite skepticism in other quarters about how many previously unseen emails remain eligible for release.
“They boasted of deploying additional resources but didn't want to actually speed the release of docs,” Fitton wrote to POLITICO in an email Wednesday. “Deep State resistance to transparency on Clinton emails continues.”