The lawsuit comes a day after Clinton gave a news conference in which she addressed for the first time the use of her private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. Clinton said roughly half of the 60,000 emails she had sent and received from her personal email while in office were work related, all of which she had turned into the State Department.
AP’s legal action follows the news agency’s repeatedly unfulfilled requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Under FOIA, federal agencies are required to give any person access to unclassified documents upon written requests. Several of AP’s requests have been pending since the summer of 2013, one was pending for five years.
The AP has sought to access Clinton’s correspondence before revelations of her personal email account were made public. Following the news, AP alleged in its lawsuit that the State Department is responsible for including emails from Clinton’s personal account in any public record request. The news agency is additionally seeking attorney’s fees related to the suit.
FOIA requests submitted include Clinton’s public and private calendars, her correspondence with longtime aides, email exchanges related to the Osama Bin Laden raid, National Security Agency surveillance practices, and documents regarding her aide Huma Abeddine.
The State Department said that reviewing the correspondence Clinton turned in would take several months, and the emails will be posted online upon completion of the review.
“After careful deliberation and exhausting our other options, the Associated Press is taking the necessary legal steps to gain access to these important documents, which will shed light on actions by the State Department and former Secretary Clinton, a presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, during some of the most significant issues of our time,” said AP’s General Council, Karen Kaiser.
“The press is a proxy for the people, and AP will continue its pursuit of vital information that’s in the public interest through this action and future open records request.”
Indeed, Wednesday’s lawsuit comes in a long string of incidents in which the press has resorted to legal action after being stonewalled by the Obama administration and federal agencies' prolonged response to FOIA requests.
In 2014 alone, 422 FOIA lawsuits were filed against the federal government, more than any other year since 2001. Most of the suits were filed by reporters from The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Vice News. The New York Times was also listed as a plaintiff for at least four of the cases, with some of its reporters as co-plaintiffs. Other organizations include ProPublica, Muckrock, and BuzzFeed.
The predominance of suits filed by the press is not surprising, as FOIA requests have become somewhat of a standard practice for several news organizations. “Simply,” New York Times’s Vice President David McCraw reported to the FOIA project. “We feel that using this law is an essential part of our mission.”
The federal government’s slow turnaround time for FOIA requests has subsequently prompted the rising number of lawsuits from news media organizations.
Legal action, according to Thomas Blanton, the director of National Security Archive, speeds up federal agencies' response to FOIA requests. The National Security Archive is another organization that filed a lawsuit against the State Department, after waiting for more than seven years for the agency to fulfill a FOIA request.
“When the government is under a court deadline, or really wants to review, they can whip through thousands of pages in a matter of weeks, which they should do here.” He said, commenting on his organization’s suit.
The State Department has faced a number of new lawsuits in the wake of Clinton’s email scandal, alleging that the agency had mishandled FOIA requests during Clinton’s tenure. A report examining the compliance rate of FOIA requests during Clinton’s last two years in office released by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Government gave the agency an “F” score – the lowest of any other agency – in transparency.
The agency’s turnaround time for FOIA requests is generally 450 days, seven times longer than the Department of Justice and the CIA.
The State Department has previously claimed that the heavy load of annual FOIA requests is the main reason behind its prolonged turnaround time. Given the history of FOIA lawsuits, however, the AP lawsuit may prompt the agency to speed up the process a little.