State Dept’s ‘FOIA Surge’ Ends Amid Accusations Of Political Retaliation

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks at President Donald Trump during a ceremony to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon on September 11, 2017. (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

The State Department has quietly ended the controversial “FOIA surge” launched last October under the since-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Capitol Hill and State Department sources tell TPM.

The effort involved pulling hundreds of people from offices across the agency — including former ambassadors, former high-level leaders of bureaus and former National Security Council staff — and reassigning them largely clerical work processing Freedom of Information Act requests.

An internal memo from the State Department’s Bureau of Administration dated Oct. 12 — obtained by TPM from a Capitol Hill source — described the surge as a “tax” on all bureaus within the agency.

Though the State Department has insisted that the transfers were made “without regard to politics,” whistleblowers within the agency and members of Congress have aired suspicions that the transfers were politically-motivated and possibly retaliatory, pointing to the reassignment of senior officials who previously worked on refugee resettlement, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, and other initiatives viewed unfavorably by the Trump administration. Some of the officials were transferred to the FOIA office after the right-wing news outlet Breitbart urged Trump to get rid of them, calling them “holdover Obama loyalist bureaucrats.”

“I continue to have concerns that this Administration is targeting career employees for their perceived political beliefs,” Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, told TPM.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents many State Department employees, wrote in May that the surge was “widely perceived as an exercise to drive people out by displacing them to tasks incommensurate with their diplomatic skills and experience.”

The “surge,” launched last October, was extended this January, but a State Department spokesperson told TPM this week that the effort is winding down.

Many department employees assigned to assist with addressing the Department’s FOIA backlog have returned to non-FOIA related duties,” the spokesperson said. The agency did not respond to follow-up questions about when the stepped-up effort officially ended and how much of a dent the multi-month initiative made in the agency’s backlog of FOIA requests. 

One of the career officials swept up in the surge was Ian Moss, a former U.S. Marine who worked in the State Department’s office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure and the National Security Council under the Obama administration.

Moss’ attorney Mark Zaid told TPM that it’s his understanding that the State Department is bringing the controversial “surge” to a close.

“I am no longer hearing complaints from people that this is happening, so that’s a good sign,” he said, adding that Moss has recently “obtained a new position outside the FOIA office that puts him back on track with his expertise” and is “far more consistent with his professional expertise and experience.”

Still, Zaid says, there are many lingering unanswered questions about the purpose of the surge and why particular individuals were singled out for the work. He says he never received a formal response from a letter he wrote to then-Secretary Tillerson demanding information about Moss’ reassignment.

“One of the good things about the State Department is that they traditionally have had incredibly senior people, like ambassadors who wanted to come back, work in the FOIA office, and that office enjoyed a level of expertise that was unparalleled with other agencies,” he said. “But that’s not what Tillerson did, which was to take people who were [the rank of] GS-14 and 15 and pull them into positions that were GS-3 and 4, doing basic data entry, in a manner that in many cases was viewed as retaliatory.”

Members of Congress say their questions about the “surge” have similarly gone unanswered.

When Mike Pompeo testified at his first congressional budget hearing as Secretary of State last week, Engel and other lawmakers pressed him on the agency’s stonewalling of their request for documents related to the FOIA surge and other personnel transfers that may have been politically-motivated. Pompeo promised to give the committee a timeline for the release of the documents by the end of last week, but committee staff tell TPM they have yet to receive anything.

‘Morally wrong but legally permissible’

One of the senior career officials reassigned to FOIA duty, who TPM granted anonymity to speak candidly about his experience, has like Moss been transferred out of the FOIA office in recent weeks. But looking back on the nearly six months of turmoil that upended his decades-long tenure in the civil service, he reflected on what he felt was an upsetting and unprofessional handling of the situation by Trump administration officials.

It began last October, when the official was told after hours, after he had already gone home, that he would be removed from the bureau he had worked in for several years and reassigned to the FOIA office. 

“They stated that there had been complaints about me from other government agencies but wouldn’t say what they were,” the official recalled. “The next day, I was not allowed to go into my own office. There was no justification, no explanation, nothing at all in writing. I did reach out to a lawyer to see if I had any legal recourse and pretty much determined that I don’t. It’s unfortunate and morally wrong but legally permissible.”  

The official, speaking for the first time to the press about his experience, told TPM that the reason for the FOIA surge was never adequately explained even to those who were part of it, leading to widespread speculation within the agency that the goal was the release of documents that would be damaging to the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“They told us that there is a horrible backlog and we owe it to the American people to release this stuff,” he said. “But many people were speculating that the leaders thought there was more Hillary Clinton email stuff that could be discovered, and other dirt from the Obama administration that could be dug up to embarrass them.”

Whether that motive was behind the reassignments or not, the official said, he feels the surge was evidence of “a misguided policy that FOIA was one of the most important things that needed to be addressed, as opposed to our foreign policy with Iran or North Korea or anything else.”

The employees reassigned to the FOIA office were a mix of junior and entry-level workers, for whom the move was more routine, and senior diplomats and bureau leaders. 

The official took pains to stress to TPM that the work of the FOIA office is important.

“It is not Siberia,” he said, referencing reports that compared the FOIA office to political exile. But it became, he said, “an easy place to park” senior career workers like him who were targeted for removal from their prior jobs.

Following Tillerson’s abrupt firing by President Donald Trump in March, and the subsequent departure of several of his allies and deputies, the official says he was able to secure a transfer to a post more in line with his professional background. For now, he is looking forward and hoping for the best.

“To be summarily dismissed was upsetting,” he said. “To be removed from an office I had personally built and really made into a high-performing team that had accomplished some great things was more than upsetting. But I kept quiet because I didn’t want to be forced out totally by all of this. Now I’m trying to find something meaningful to do while shedding light on what happened.”

Latest DC
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: