Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assignment of as many as several hundred State Department officials to quickly clear a huge backlog of public records requests is being met with deep skepticism by rank-and-file employees.
Tillerson says his goal is transparency. But many State workers fear the real reason is political: expediting the public release of thousands of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s official emails.
The staffers also suspect the move — which will reassign many of them from far more substantive duties and has already sparked a union complaint — is meant to force many of them to resign out of frustration with what are essentially clerical positions.
The issue spotlights the deepening distrust towards Tillerson at Foggy Bottom, where his attempts to restructure the department, cut its budget and centralize policy-making have already hurt morale. But it is drawing applause from conservative groups, who have been pressuring Tillerson to act on a backlog of 13,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests — many of them relating to emails and other records from Clinton’s tenure.
“We haven’t understood why there’s been a slow-walking of releasing records, and we’ve been quite public in counseling the administration to take an approach of extreme transparency,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group that has sued the Trump administration for more Clinton documents.
“It looks like someone’s listening,” Fitton added.
Current and former career diplomats scoff at such talk. They say the real story is Tillerson’s contempt for a State Department workforce he sees as bloated, and one which President Donald Trump views as a Democratic stronghold loyal to Clinton, who served as secretary of state from 2009-2013.
While many of the people assigned to open-records duty are lower-level staffers and interns, some have previously held prestigious posts, helping shape U.S. foreign policy and engaging in high-level diplomacy.
“Nothing better illustrates the view of the Trump administration that U.S. diplomats are nothing more than overpaid clerks,” said Thomas Countryman, a retired career foreign service officer who served as assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Tillerson announced his decision to ramp up FOIA processing in an Oct. 17 email to State employees. Tillerson has set an ambitious—some say implausible—goal of clearing the backlog by the end of this year.
Suspicions around his motivation are being fueled in part by an Oct. 27 CNN report that, citing unnamed sources, said Trump is pushing the State Department to release any remaining Clinton emails it may still have and that the president had asked Tillerson to clear the department’s backlog of unfulfilled records requests.
According to Judicial Watch, the State Department has yet to process around 40,000 pages of at least 72,000 records which contain Clinton emails. However, State Department officials have indicated they believe that many of those still-unreleased documents are duplicates of information already shared with the public. Recent waves of releases of Clinton-related records have yielded little fresh material.
Tillerson’s email made no mention of Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election. But many of the outstanding open records requests are related to her tenure as secretary of state, and have become a subject of intense interest among conservative activists who say the Trump administration hasn’t done enough to act on them.
“There has been no substantial change whatsoever in the Rex Tillerson State Department or the Jeff Sessions Justice Department about Mrs. Clinton’s emails,” legal analyst Andrew Napolitano told the Fox Business network in August.
Tillerson’s email said the department’s FOIA backlog stretches back roughly a decade and would take at least two years to clear without more resources. To cut that time, the department will commit more people to open-records duty and streamline the process so as to move toward a “goal of a more responsive, more accountable, and more transparent State Department,” Tillerson wrote.
Tillerson did not say how many State officials would be reassigned, but sources familiar with the situation say hundreds of State staffers will be affected, either part-time or full-time, because every bureau has been told to commit people to review and release records. The sources also said Tillerson is calling for the backlog to be cleared by the end of the year, a goal that may prove impossible.
“It’s a remarkable misuse of resources to advance what is at its core a partisan political aim,” one affected State employee said. “We all know what’s going on. And, of course, we’re all unhappy that we’re being made a part of it.”
The State Department’s press section did not respond to questions from POLITICO about whether Tillerson is motivated by a desire to release the Clinton emails, instead issuing a statement largely echoing Tillerson’s Oct. 17 memo. But White House spokesman Raj Shah cast Tillerson’s open records drive as part of Trump’s overall goal to see all government agencies be more transparent.
“The State Department has already begun work to reduce one of the worst backlogs in the federal government and the administration has issued guidance instructing all agencies to increase efficiency and reduce FOIA backlogs,” Shah wrote in an email. “This is the people’s government, and decades of waiting for records the government is obligated to produce is no longer acceptable.”
Government watchdogs, however, say they’ve seen no signs of similar initiatives at other departments and agencies.
“In particular, there has been no comparable involvement by an agency head like Secretary Tillerson in the FOIA process lately,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy. “But the backlog at State is particularly large, driven in part by a focus on former-Secretary Clinton and her tenure in the department.”
The State Department is a favorite target of open records requests from journalists as well as activist organizations, and past secretaries of state have struggled to contain the mushrooming requests. The demand for Clinton’s emails, sparked by revelations in 2015 that she had used a private server while secretary of state, shed an especially harsh light on State’s sluggish record-release process.
John Kerry, Tillerson’s predecessor as secretary of state, named a transparency coordinator to try to speed things up. Kerry’s FOIA surge called for the addition of 50 reviewers and administrative staff; many of the reviewers were retired Foreign Service officers brought back on board to help out.
Moira Whelan, who served as a deputy assistant secretary under Kerry, downplayed diplomats’ concerns that Tillerson’s FOIA push is an anti-Clinton drive.
“If more right-wing groups are FOIA-ing than left-wing groups, that is what it is — it’s FOIA, it’s a system for everyone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the motivation is. Any secretary should try to make it a priority.”
Still, a State Department official familiar with the situation told POLITICO that the initiative is “causing panic in some managers as well as Foreign Service officers because Human Resources needs to pull bodies to the FOIA office.” Competition for other assignments also has intensified as people try to avoid being “FOIA’d.”
Tillerson’s FOIA push also is leading many employees, who hail from both the civil service and the Foreign Service, to consider quitting the State Department altogether.
That may help Tillerson fulfill another goal: trimming State’s headcount. The secretary has said he wants to cut at least 2,300 positions through a combination of buyouts and attrition. The department’s press office did not respond to a request for information about how close Tillerson is to achieving that goal. The State Department has 75,000 employees across the world.
Tillerson also has moved to shut down more than 30 special envoy offices — including that of the transparency coordinator — and staffers from some of those offices may be shifted over to FOIA duty.
In the wake of Tillerson’s email, representatives with the American Federation of Government Employees have filed a complaint on behalf of civil servants being given open-records duties at State. A union official said the complaint, lodged with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, requests an investigation into whether the department is violating labor laws by changing people’s working conditions without negotiating with the union.
Tillerson’s push to clear the FOIA backlog is in some ways fitting with his professional background.
As a former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has long been interested in organizational challenges. And, even as the U.S. faces major diplomatic tests, such as how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program and counter Iran’s moves in the Middle East, Tillerson has said the “most important” thing he can do is reshape the State Department to be more effective and efficient.
On the other hand, Tillerson’s critics note, ExxonMobil was not known for being transparent under Tillerson. And since taking over as secretary in February, Tillerson has largely avoided the spotlight. He also has centralized decision-making to himself and a handful of aides to such a degree that much of the department’s rank-and-file feels sidelined.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.
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