Hillary Clinton’s State Department chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, was allowed to vet records released by the agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, emails released last week show.
In an April 2012 email chain first flagged by the Washington Free Beacon, State Department officials discussed the release of the so-called “Zelikow memo,” a 2006 document which pertained to advanced interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration.
In one email, career State Department official Sheryl Walter, the director of office that handles FOIA requests, said that she wanted to make other officials aware of the release of the memo given that it was “likely to get press attention.”
“I wanted to make sure everyone in my chain of command is aware of a declassified document we are planning to release under FOIA,” Walter wrote, noting that “Cheryl Mills is aware and has cleared” the release.
“I wanted to be sure you all were in the loop on this now so that you won’t be taken by surprise and were assured this has been fully vetted, cleared, and planned for,” Walter added.
[dcquiz] In a follow-up email, Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s powerful under secretary for management, forwarded the chain to Mills, asking her: “Does this comport with what you have agreed to?”
Mills then forwarded the chain to Clinton.
Allowing Mills to okay the release of the document is an unusual step in what is supposed to be an apolitical process.
It also confirms a Wall Street Journal report published in May showing that Mills often vetted FOIA requests that came through the State Department.
In one Oct. 2012 email, State Department staffers acknowledged that a FOIA request was being reviewed by Mills.
“I believe, though, that this is still pending with Cheryl Mills’ office…The real action, for now, is with Cheryl’s office,” the email reads.
Mills also intervened in a request for records pertaining to the Keystone XL pipeline. According to the Journal, she asked to review the documents and requested that some be withheld from release.
A FOIA expert told the Journal that while it may be acceptable for political appointees to review requests, they should not be allowed to negotiate the release of documents subject to review.
“Ultimately, the career people have to be the ones who make the final call,” Miriam Nisbet, a former director of the federal FOIA ombudsman office at the National Archives and Records Administration, told the Journal.
A State Department spokesman defended Mills’ involvement, telling the Journal back in May that it was “entirely appropriate” for State Department officials like Mills to have input on certain FOIA requests.
As the Free Beacon notes, Iowa Sen. [crscore]Chuck Grassley[/crscore], the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Sec. of State John Kerry in May expressing concern about Mills’ involvement in the FOIA process.
“[A]s recent reports indicate, it appears the political concerns of senior agency staff are undermining the public’s right to know under FOIA,” Grassley wrote. “This is, without question, a far cry from the spirit of our nation’s transparency laws, as well as from the President’s ‘presumption of openness.'”
Mills’ involvement in handling FOIA requests raises other questions about whether political appointees were involved in reviewing requests for Clinton’s emails when she was in office.
Several FOIA requests were filed during her tenure seeking her emails and those of her top aides, including Mills. But even though work-related emails sent and received on personal accounts are subject to FOIA, the State Department denied the requests, stating that no records could be found. The question remains whether Mills or any other Clinton insider blocked the requests, which would have exposed her exclusive use of a personal email account and a private server.