Drug Control: Delays in Obtaining State Department Records Relating to Colombia

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-07-09.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on National Security,
                          International Affairs and Criminal Justice, Committee on
                          Government Reform and Oversight, House of

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
1:00 p.m., EDT
                          DRUG CONTROL
July 9, 1997

                          Delays in Obtaining State
                          Department Records
                          Relating to Colombia
                          Statement of Henry L. Hinton, Jr., Assistant Comptroller
                          General, National Security and International Affairs

          Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

          As requested, we are here today to discuss the problems we have
          encountered in conducting our review of counternarcotics activities in
          Colombia. On March 4, 1997, you asked that we review the progress of U.S.
          and Colombian efforts to reduce drug trafficking activities and influence
          and any problems that exist. Subsequently, the Chairmen of the House
          Committee on International Relations and the Senate Caucus on
          International Narcotics Control also requested that we address similar
          issues.1 Mr. Chairman, our review has been significantly delayed because
          the State Department did not give us timely and complete access to the
          information we require to address the issues you, Chairman Gilman, and
          Senator Grassley have raised.

          GAO’s basic authority to access records is contained in 31 U.S.C. 716. This
Summary   statute gives GAO a very broad right of access to agency records for the
          purpose of conducting audits and evaluations. Generally, we do not
          encounter problems in accessing agency records in the course of most of
          our work. In fact, during the past 2 years, we have conducted a number of
          counternarcotics-related reviews in Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and
          the Caribbean for this Subcommittee. In every case, the State Department
          and embassy officials were cooperative in providing us with timely and
          independent access to information.

          In none of these past assignments did the State Department attempt to
          control our independent access to information. For example, in a 1995
          review of the Colombia counternarcotics program, our team had
          independent and unrestricted access to program files of State’s Bureau for
          International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). We were
          allowed to review files and obtain immediate access to any document we
          requested. Furthermore, during our 1995 visit to Bogota, embassy officials
          provided similar access to their State Department files, enabling us to
          develop conclusions based on all readily available information. We were
          allowed to transmit all classified documents directly to our agency, in
          accordance with our established security procedures.

           In response to these requests, we are in the process of reviewing (1) the length of time it took the
          executive branch to determine what assistance would be affected by the March 1, 1996, decertification
          of Colombia and the subsequent impacts of decertification on U.S. assistance to Colombia; (2) the
          status of the proposed $40-million emergency assistance package being provided to Colombia under
          section 506 (a) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended (22 U.S.C. 2318(a)(2)); and (3) the
          planning and implementation of U.S. antidrug efforts in Colombia.

          Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202
                      In contrast, throughout this review, the State Department has delayed us
                      and imposed undue restrictions on our access to documents.2 The
                      Department has established an elaborate process for considering our
                      document requests by “screening” documents through multiple,
                      time-consuming reviews before they are released to us. And, the State
                      Department has insisted that we review, under restrictive conditions,
                      many of the documents that have been released to us. Moreover, in some
                      cases, the Department has deleted some information from these
                      documents. After several unsuccessful attempts to resolve these problems,
                      we formally notified the Department on June 25, 1997, that our work was
                      being obstructed by delays in obtaining information.

                      Here are some examples of the problems we have encountered.

                      Typically, we work with an agency’s program officials in identifying and
Delays in Obtaining   obtaining records relevant to our review, and we receive most documents
Documents             directly from program officials either on the spot or with minimal delay. In
                      the present case, all of the documents we requested from the State
                      Department’s INL Bureau and from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia,
                      were subjected to review by multiple bureau’s and offices, including INL
                      and the Bureau for Inter-American Affairs (ARA), the Office of the Legal
                      Advisor, and the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for
                      Information Management. This multiple review process has been
                      extremely time-consuming and has delayed our access to certain
                      documents for months.

                      For example, on April 11, 1997, we requested 35 specific documents from
                      INLfiles. INL did not respond to our request until June 9, 1997—almost
                      2 months after the request was made—and even then only gave us less
                      than half of the documents. We did not receive access to all of the
                      remaining documents until July 1. On May 8, 1997, we requested an
                      additional 115 specific documents from INL files. On June 11, 1997, INL
                      provided about half of the documents, and the rest were made available on
                      July 1—almost 2 months after we had requested them.

                       These documents include cables, contractor and embassy reports, and correspondence. The
                      documents cover a variety of areas such as progress reports on Colombia’s status in meeting U.S.
                      certification criteria; the impacts of decertification; concerns about the impact of Narcotics Affairs
                      Section (NAS) funding of unplanned requirements such as increased coca and opium poppy
                      eradication and the delivery of certain types of section 506 (a) assistance; weekly reports that show
                      problems in managing the coca reduction program; the counternarcotics needs of the government of
                      Colombia; and a variety of State Department concerns about end-use monitoring and human rights and
                      the impact that these concerns have on the delivery and use of counternarcotics assistance by the
                      Colombian police and military.

                      Page 2                                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202
                      We also experienced delays in obtaining access to information in
                      connection with our 3 week visit to the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia.
                      About one week prior to our visit, we faxed and telephoned the embassy,
                      providing them with a list of documents we wanted to review. At that time,
                      embassy officials did not indicate there would be any problem in getting
                      access to these documents. Upon arrival at the embassy on May 19, 1997,
                      our team was informed that we could not begin our review until guidance
                      was received from the Department about providing our team access to and
                      release of documents requested in connection with the assignment. The
                      next day, our team was told that the embassy had been instructed by the
                      State Department to screen all document requests; determine the
                      documents’ releasibility based on the Washington screening guidance; and
                      then to send all the documents to the Department’s ARA Bureau in
                      Washington, which would, in turn, release them to us. Throughout the visit
                      to Colombia, our team was not allowed to have independent access to
                      embassy files or to have the instructions detailing how the embassy was to
                      screen documents.

                      Furthermore, the team was informed that documents screened at the
                      embassy and sent to State in Washington would not undergo another
                      screening unless the embassy asked for it. However, it appears that all of
                      the documents sent from the embassy underwent a second review in
                      Washington. On May 28, 1997, the embassy sent 24 requested documents
                      to ARA for release to our team; and, on June 5, ARA informed us that the
                      classified documents had arrived. However, these documents were not
                      released to us until July 3, 1997. Subsequently, on June 6, 1997, the
                      Embassy sent another 322 documents that our team had requested during
                      its visit. As with the earlier requested documents, these were not released
                      until to us until July 3. We are now trying to reconcile our request for these
                      documents with the documents provided by the State Department.

                      After considerable delay, the State Department has now made most of the
Restrictions on       information we requested in Washington and at the embassy in Bogota
Review of Documents   available to us. However, the Department is delaying our review further by
                      requiring that we read all classified documents—and there are over 100 of
                      them—at the State Department. The Department has told us that we
                      cannot have copies of any of these documents. We are concerned that the
                      process of reviewing and making handwritten notes on this large number
                      of documents at the State Department will create further unnecessary
                      delays in our work. On other jobs, we routinely obtain copies of classified
                      documents, including highly classified national security information and

                      Page 3                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202
                  materials. We have established procedures for ensuring that we provide
                  these documents at least the same degree of protection as is afforded by
                  the originating agency. Also, it is standard operating procedure for our
                  office to seek a security classification review from the Department on a
                  draft of any report that was derived from classified sources.

                  Based on guidance from the State Department, the embassy in Colombia
Document          denied us access to four requested documents. The embassy advised us
Withholding and   that the documents were drafts leading to the completion of the annual
Deletions         International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued on March 1, 1997,
                  and as such were part of the Department’s deliberative process. Based on
                  records we have reviewed in our prior work, these documents likely
                  contain the embassy’s description of the progress that a country is making
                  in cooperating with the United States in counternarcotics matters. While
                  the embassy advised us to pursue our request with the State Department in
                  Washington, we have not yet been given access to these documents. Under
                  31 U.S.C. 716(a), GAO has a broad right of access to agency records, and
                  there is no exemption for internal working papers or documents
                  containing deliberative communications.

                  In addition, the State Department has deleted or “redacted” portions of
                  some documents. For example, the Department told us that it has redacted
                  some documents to delete sensitive information relating to such things as
                  ongoing law enforcement operations and foreign relations activities. We
                  are concerned about these redactions, since they prevent us from knowing
                  whether all relevant information has been provided to us. While we
                  understand the State Department’s concern about protecting sensitive
                  information from public disclosure, we have a right of access to this
                  information. Moreover, we are confident we can protect it through
                  appropriate safeguards.

                  In summary, Mr. Chairman, our concern is with the delay that we have
Conclusions       experienced in obtaining timely and independent access to information
                  necessary to respond to your request. We are also concerned about the
                  extent to which the State Department has controlled our access to all
                  documents. We cannot say with certainty at this time that we have been
                  provided with all of the information necessary to conduct an independent
                  review of U.S. counternarcotics activities in Colombia.

                  Page 4                                                   GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202
           This concludes our prepared remarks, we would be pleased to respond to
           your questions.

(711286)   Page 5                                                GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202
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