Trade is a hot issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. But correspondence from Hillary Clinton and her top State Department aides about a controversial 12-nation trade deal will not be available for public review — at least not until after the election. The Obama administration abruptly blocked the release of Clinton’s State Department correspondence about the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), after first saying it expected to produce the emails this spring.
The decision came in response to International Business Times’ open records request for correspondence between Clinton’s State Department office and the United States Trade Representative. The request, which was submitted in July 2015, specifically asked for all such correspondence that made reference to the TPP.
The State Department originally said it estimated the request would be completed by April 2016. Last week the agency said it had completed the search process for the correspondence but also said it was delaying the completion of the request until late November 2016 — weeks after the presidential election. The delay was issued in the same week the Obama administration filed acourt motion to try to kill a lawsuit aimed at forcing the federal government to more quickly comply with open records requests for Clinton-era State Department documents.
Clinton’s shifting positions on the TPP have been a source of controversy during the campaign: She repeatedly promoted the deal as secretary of state but then in 2015 said, “I did not work on TPP,” even though some leaked State Department cables show that her agency was involved in diplomatic discussions about the pact. Under pressure from her Democratic primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, Clinton announced in October that she now opposes the deal — and hasdisputed that she ever fully backed it in the first place.
While some TPP-related emails have been released by the State Department as part of other open records requests, IBT’s request was designed to provide a comprehensive view of how involved Clinton and her top aides were in shaping the trade agreement, and whether her agency had a hand in crafting any particular provisions in the pact. Unions, environmental organizations and consumer groups say the agreement will help corporations undermine domestic labor, conservation and other public interest laws.
If IBT’s open records request is fulfilled on the last day of November, as the State Department now estimates, it will have taken 489 days for the request to be fulfilled. According to Justice Department statistics, the average wait time for a State Department request is 111 days on a simple request — the longest of any federal agency the department’s report analyzed. Requests classified as complex by the State Department can take years.
Earlier this year, the State Department’s inspector general issued a report slamming the agency’s handling of open records requests for documents from the Office of the Secretary. Searches of emails “do not consistently meet statutory and regulatory requirements for completeness and rarely meet requirements for timeliness,” the inspector general concluded.
Last year, a Government Accountability Office report found that at the agencies it surveyed, there was not political interference in responding to open records requests. However, last month, a conservative group filed a lawsuit alleging that an Obama administration directive has deliberately slowed the response to open records requests that deal with politically sensitive material.
Nate Jones of the National Security Archive told IBT that whether or not the State Department’s move to delay the release of TPP-related correspondence is politically motivated, it reflects a systemic problem at the agency.
“In my opinion it is more incompetence than maliciousness, but either way, it is a gross error by FOIA processors to not get these documents out before the election,” said Jones, whose group helps journalists obtain government records. “Their inefficiency is doing great harm to the democratic process.”