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Homeland Security’s Top Watchdog Pulled Documents from its Website

Screenshot of the FOIA Reading Room from the DHS OIG website

Two documents cataloging hundreds of allegations of misconduct involving Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees have been removed from the agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG) website.

The documents, similar to one that is still available on the website, catalogue allegations ranging from drug trafficking to rape that the IG investigated from 2012 to 2016. IG investigators did not substantiate most of the allegations. These matters encompass major DHS offices, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A DHS spokesperson told the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) that the agency removed the documents from the IG’s online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reading Room after it learned that one of the documents included a name that should have been redacted under FOIA regulations.

Screenshot of documents from July 23, 2017, that have since been removed from the DHS OIG website.

Two documents, shown on the DHS OIG website in July 13, 2017, have since been removed from the site. (Accessed via archive.org.)

The spokesperson said the agency would put the documents back online after a “quality control check,” but did not specify how long that would take.

Under federal law, a government agency must make a document available in an online reading room after the agency receives and grants a FOIA request for the same document at least three times. However, FOIA regulations also allow the government to redact certain information from these documents.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Last month, ICE inadvertently posted personal information about hundreds of people on its website. ICE later removed its entire FOIA reading room to “undergo review”—and presumably remove sensitive personal information—before restoring it.

But the problem with the way both the IG and ICE dealt with personal information falling through the cracks—and onto the Internet where anyone can see it—is that neither office posted clear information on their websites about why the information had been removed and when it would be available again. In the case of the IG, the office didn’t post any information at all about the missing documents, leaving the media and the public confused about why the material was removed.

The lack of transparency in the removal of information from government websites was starkly illustrated recently when the Treasury Department and FEMA removed important analytic data from their websites. As POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian noted, it appears as though the agencies removed the data either because it contradicted the Trump administration’s policies or made it look bad.

In order to avoid giving the appearance of depriving the public of information for the wrong—or possibly illegal—reasons, the government should be more proactively transparent when it removes information from the Internet.

By: Mia Steinle
Investigator, POGO

Mia Steinle, Investigator Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight and the civil society coordinator for the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Her work focuses on government management of the oil, gas, and mining industries.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Inspector General Oversight

Authors: Mia Steinle

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