Secretary of State John Kerry has tapped a former career diplomat as an “email czar” to coordinate the State Department response to the myriad of document requests mostly related to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which have strained the department’s resources, officials familiar with the appointment tell CNN.
Janice Jacobs will serve as Kerry’s State Department’s Transparency Coordinator, charged with responding to Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests faster and more efficiently and improving the State Department systems for keeping records.
Kerry has sought to balance between trying to ensure the department promptly responds to the various requests without directly undercutting his predecessor and the Democratic party’s presidential front-runner. Privately aides say he has been annoyed at the distraction the controversy has caused for his department, which has at times overshadowed his diplomatic efforts.
One senior official said Jacob’s appointment was “born out of frustration” on Kerry’s part that the State Department has come under fire by federal judges and members of Congress alike for not being responsive to requests by the public and Congress for documents, particularly over the past six months as questions about Clinton’s use of a private email server have prompted an influx of inquiries and lawsuits.
Hillary Clinton email controversy
The official added, “He is also bothered frankly by unfair criticism of some of our public servants that have been working hard without enough resources.”
In July a federal judge lashed out at the State Department for what he called “dragging their feet” by delaying for four years FOIA requests from the Associated Press about Clinton’s schedules at State and documents related to Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin’s special employment status at State.
Both Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley and Trey Gowdy, chair of the House Select Committee on Benghazi have both accused the State Department of stonewalling document production to their many inquiries.
“Now that the agency is dedicating itself specifically to resolving the backlog of requests, I expect to begin receiving responses to my questions in a rapid fashion,” Grassley said in a statement Tuesday.
A spokesman for Gowdy’s committee, Jamal Ware, said the appointment reflected an admission by the State Department that it had not been complying with the group’s information requests.
“Adding another person to State’s bureaucracy to address the problems caused by former Secretary Clinton’s unusual and unprecedented email arrangement will mean little if State does not address the obstacles that currently exist with its compliance,” Ware said. “The proof will be in timely production, not late promises.”
Officials say Kerry tapped Jacobs for her experience in leading reform efforts. As Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services in 2002, she was at the center of a major effort to revamp visa issuance policies and how the State Department shared information with law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The State Department was under pressure at that time to show it could prevent terrorists from entering the country with valid U.S. visas in the future, which led to historic changes in Jacobs’ office.
She would later become Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs in 2008, until she retired last year. In that post, she was tasked with clearing up a backlog of passport applications following new requirements for travelers entering the US by air to have passports. The record number of applications led to a massive backlog that caused long delays for millions of Americans attempting to travel abroad.
Officials said a “large volume” of the FOIA requests and congressional inquiries over the past six months have been related to the widening controversy over Clinton’s email usage.
The ever-increasing number of requests and investigations, they say have put a burden on State Department personnel. In addition to bureaus who need to vet the emails for possible redactions, legal advisers and other personnel have also been brought in to deal with various lawsuits that keep growing.
Separate from the Clinton email release, the department is the defendant in more than a dozen other FOIA lawsuits relating to Clinton’s tenure, with additional document production deadlines to meet for those requests.
Requests are also now piling up for documents from her former aides. In addition, the House Select Committee on Benghazi investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission has tasked the State Department for all documents related to Libya over a several year period – a request that officials say could take years.
In May John F. Hackett, the Acting Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services wrote about the problem in a letter.
“Even though we are trying to be responsive, there is still a perception we aren’t cooperating because when one is closed out there is a new one,” another official said. “This is a problem that just builds on itself. “
In instances where the State Department has met its document release obligations, the review process itself has come under criticism for failure to redact certain sensitive information, including information from foreign government sources, which some in congress and the broader intelligence community say should be classified.
The State Department has been working in conjunction with a team of intelligence community personnel to vet Clinton’s 55,000 pages of emails ahead of their public release, making redactions and classification upgrades as they go. In July, the State Department fell behind in meeting its monthly production quota set by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, but reviewers made up the deficit in August and ultimately exceeded their goal by releasing more than 25% of the former secretary’s total email trove. The senior official said Kerry hoped Jacob’s appointment would give “new energy” to that effort.
“There is a lot of red tape we need to clean up,” the senior official said. “We need someone to cross cut the agencies and bureaus, get information cleared as soon as possible and tie this together.”
The volume is not just related to the Clinton documents, however. State Department officials say FOIA requests for documents have tripled since 2008 and that the small State Department office which processes the requests is ill-equipped to deal with the volume. As a result, the senior official pointed to a “stove-piping of requests that has not led to efficiencies.”
“Secretary Kerry’s view is that the FOIA process is overwhelming and not properly resourced. The result has been a fairly sclerotic process and he wants to get someone in here working through all this.”
In addition to ensuring documents are provided to Congress and released publicly in a timely manner, Jacobs will be expected to work with other agencies and the private sector to implement best practices and new technologies to improve the State Department’s systems.
“This can’t be done with just a band-aid or piecemeal,” a third official said. “We need to be doing things in a better way.”
Jacobs will also be responsible for helping the State Department meet targets under a new Presidential executive order for digitally archiving federal government records by 2019 and implement recommendations by the agency’s inspector general. In an effort to respond to mounting criticism of his department’s responsiveness to information requests from the public, Kerry requested in March that Inspector General Steve Linick conduct an expedited review of department efforts underway to improve records management.
Republicans were quick to point out that Jacobs contributed $2,700 – the maximum allowed – to Clinton’s campaign on June 22, according to Federal Election Commission records. Jacobs, who made the donation before she took the new post, is a 49-year career diplomat who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the department was not aware of the contribution, but “it bears no relevance on her position whatsoever.”
Kerry “wholeheartedly believes that she’s the right person for this job,” Kirby said, adding that there is “nothing wrong” with federal employees making political contributions.
“This is a democracy,” Kirby said.
CNN’s Theodore Schleifer contributed reporting.