Trump Administration Blocks Access to Report on Handling of the Travel Ban; Open Government Groups Appeal Decision

OTG and POGO call for Immediate Disclosure to Ensure Accountability for Travel Ban Abuses

WASHINGTON – Today, two open government organizations called on the Trump Administration to immediately release an Inspector General’s report detailing how the administration carried out its controversial travel ban issued in January 2017. Open the Government and the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) were alarmed after their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to access the IG report was blocked by the Trump Administration, and today filed an appeal challenging the decision.

“This is a blow to transparency and an effort to conceal from the public how the travel ban was implemented on the ground,” said Open the Government’s Executive Director Lisa Rosenberg. “This ill-considered executive order had immediate ramifications, disrupted lives, and was headline news, but the Trump Administration doesn’t think people have a right to know the details about potential abuse associated with the travel ban order. We will do everything in our power to ensure accountability by bringing the full truth into the light of day.”

"If government agencies are allowed to muzzle inspector general offices with overreaching and farcical secrecy claims, they will make a mockery of their watchdogs' independence and the public will pay the price,” said POGO’s Executive Director Danielle Brian “Inspectors general have a duty to sound the alarm to Congress and the American public when agencies engage in wrongdoing. That's what our FOIA request is ultimately about: the agency seeking to bury embarrassing findings shouldn’t be able to hide the work of the inspector general."

In January 2017, Trump issued his executive order and it instantly created chaos and protests at airports nationwide. In response, Congress quickly requested an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General. Nearly a year later, the results of that investigation are being suppressed.  Yesterday, Senator Leahy asked DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson why the report was still being kept secret. Nielson responded “absolutely,” when Leahy asked if the public has the right to know what’s in the report, but held that it was a matter of ongoing discussions with the IG and that some of the information was protected by privilege.

In a November 20th letter sent to Congress, DHS Inspector General John Roth warned members of Congress that the Department was going to invoke the “deliberative process privilege” to keep the report secret. According to the FOIA statute and policy guidelines, the general purpose of the deliberative process privilege is to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions.”

The letter stated he was “particularly troubled by the Department’s threat to invoke the deliberative process privilege,” and that it would be the “first time in his tenure as Inspector General that the Department has indicated that they may assert this privilege in connection with one of our reports….” Shortly after this lengthy letter criticizing DHS for taking more than six weeks to choose which sections of the report would be released to the public, Roth retired from his position. OTG and POGO immediately filed a FOIA request following his resignation.

In response to our FOIA request, the DHS Office of the IG recently denied full access to the report, claiming the report addresses matters that are ongoing, and similarly invoked the discretionary deliberative process privilege. In response to the IG’s decision, OTG and POGO have filed an appeal because the report in question is final and therefore it is inherently post-decisional and cannot be considered either pre-decisional or deliberative, no matter how many ongoing matters it may become a part of after completion.

Our appeal requests another review of the report, immediate processing and urgent release of the full report, including all its conclusions regarding the implementation of President Trump’s travel ban.

Read the response letter from the DHS IG, here, and the appeal from OTG/POGO, here.

Open the Government is an inclusive, nonpartisan coalition that works to strengthen our democracy and empower the public by advancing policies that create a more open, accountable, and responsive government. 

The Project On Government Oversight is a nonpartisan independent government watchdog whose investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, and ethical federal government.