Senate panel slams State over Clinton emails, FOIA practices

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Senate Judiciary Republicans grilled the State Department’s FOIA chief Wednesday for details on former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct official business.

During the hearing, several lawmakers specifically asked Joyce Barr, State’s assistant secretary for administration and chief Freedom of Information Act officer, about the department’s and the former secretary’s IT systems. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas inquired whether Barr knew what efforts Clinton undertook to protect her server from cyber attackers. Barr said she didn’t.

“Would that concern you?” Cornyn asked her.

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?” he retorted. “Well, I would hope that it would concern a lot of us.”

Later, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who called State’s records management systems “bush league,” asked Barr what she would think of a hypothetical midlevel director at State who announced plans to host emails on a private server.

“I think the message is loud and clear that that is not acceptable,” Barr said.

Clinton, who recently announced she’d run for the top spot on the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket, came under fire after a New York Times report earlier this year said she used a personal email address and server for agency business while in office. She also faced criticism when she later admitted to deleting some of her personal correspondence from the tens of thousands of pages of emails that she submitted to the department for review.

It’s still common for agencies to print emails they want to archive, though a 2012 directive from the National Archives requires agencies to manage their email records electronically by 2016.

Overall, Senate Judiciary Committee lawmakers called on State and other agencies to improve their open government practices and decrease their response time to FOIA requests.

Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, noted in his opening statement that according to the Center for Effective Government’s annual Access to Information Scorecard, the State Department processed only 17 percent of the FOIA requests it received in 2013. And requests continue to pile up.

“These results seem to confirm an ongoing issue with the State Department’s ability to manage agency information and process FOIA requests,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota suggested that Congress ought to shoulder some of the blame as it has been “slow to modernize” federal records laws. And Barr emphasized the department has been working to strengthen its transparency.

There was one bright spot for the department during the hearing.

In a second panel, Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, noted his group commended State’s online reading room of released FOIA documents in a recent report.

Even so, Blanton came down hard on the department for not promptly processing FOIA requests and inadequately safeguarding its email records.

He said department staff was not using its online archiving system, called SMART, to save critical emails, echoing the findings of a recent report from the department’s inspector general. Meanwhile, he said, the department has a more than $1 billion IT budget.

“It’s not resources,” Blanton said. “It’s will. It’s leadership.”

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Agencies, Departments, Government IT News, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), open government, State Department
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