The State Department produced "inaccurate and incomplete" responses to public records requests while Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton led the department, including its inability to find documents showing she used a private email account for official business, the agency's watchdog reported Thursday.
The inspector general's findings come the same day the State Department is expected to release thousands more pages of Clinton's correspondence. The report found personnel responsible for Freedom of Information Act requests in the secretary's office often missed deadlines and didn't meet legal requirements for conducting complete searches.
Overall, the report from Inspector General Steve Linick found a "lack of oversight" by agency leadership, as well as a "failure to routinely search emails" as part of FOIA requests. The report faulted ongoing staff shortages amid requests that have taken more than 16 months to process, stretching back to requests during former President George W. Bush's administration.
Clinton, the front-runner for her party's presidential nomination, has faced criticism for relying on a private, homemade email server to conduct State Department business. The AP first reported in March 2014 the existence of a server in her Chappaqua, New York, home. She used that server instead of an official account on government email systems.
Linick found that records involving Clinton's private email account, requested in 2012 by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had turned up no records. It was one of four examples the report highlighted while Clinton was in charge, including how a request for her schedules by the AP "sat dormant for several years" until the news cooperative sued the State Department last March. Four months later, the agency disclosed in court filings it finally conducted a search and located at least 4,440 records.
Clinton has since handed over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department she said pertained to her work as secretary using her personal address.
But Linick's report underscored inherent problems for public responses to records requests when government employees use such a private account.
The federal public records law "neither authorizes nor requires agencies to search for federal records in personal email accounts maintained on private servers or through commercial providers" such as Gmail or Yahoo, the report stated. "Furthermore, the FOIA analyst has no way to independently locate federal records from such accounts unless employees take steps to preserve official emails in department record-keeping systems."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement the agency is "committed to transparency, and the issues addressed in this report have the full attention" of Secretary of State John Kerry. Kirby said the volume of FOIA requests had tripled since 2008, and resources "have not kept pace."
"We know we must continue to improve our FOIA responsiveness, and are taking additional steps to do so," Kirby said, saying the agency has accepted the inspector general's four recommendations.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said Thursday the State Department "had a preexisting process in place to handle the tens of thousands of requests it received annually, and that established process was followed by the secretary and her staff throughout her tenure."
The former secretary of state has faced questions during her campaign about whether her unusual email setup was sufficient to ensure the security of government information and retention of records. Officials have since blacked out scores of details in those emails that were later deemed classified before releasing them to the public.
Under the FOIA, citizens and foreigners can compel federal agencies to turn over copies of federal records and requires an agency to respond within 20 days, a deadline often missed in practice across the U.S. government.
However, "some requests involving the Office of the Secretary have taken more than 500 days to process." the report noted.
Clinton has yet to answer in detail how her homemade server was monitored for intrusions, saying only it contained "numerous safeguards." In October, the AP found Clinton's server was connected to the Internet in ways that made it more vulnerable to hackers.
The inspector general said the agency should address vulnerabilities in its FOIA process. But the report indicated the watchdog will report separately on issues associated with using non-State Department systems to conduct official business, as well as on requirements to preserve government records.