(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that it received 119 pages of records from the office of the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which show Special Inspector General John Sopko’s opposition to the Biden administration’s order to remove Internet access to hundreds of pages of public reports on the weaponry and training the U.S. provided to Afghan security forces.
Judicial Watch obtained the records in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent on September 13, 2021, for records related to the scrubbing of reports about Afghanistan from the SIGAR web site.
On August 16, 2021, at 3:18 p.m., one day after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, Carole Clay, an official at the State Department’s Bureau of the Comptroller and Global Financial Services, emails SIGAR official Matt Dove to inform him of the State Department’s “unprecedented request” to SIGAR “to suspend large portions of your website and public access to reports and records:
We request urgent assistance in identifying and temporarily removing (and potentially redacting on a longer term basis) all potentially sensitive and identifying information on U.S. government assistance programs/projects in Afghanistan. A great many of your historical publications contain extensive details about activities and partners that could put individuals at risk in the current environment.
We are also making requests to the GAO and OIG communities to assist in this effort. Because SIGAR is probably the most extensive source for vendor and other information in Afghanistan through the information available for your website, it might be easiest to disable the website functionality for accessing reports and other publications and notifications. Obviously we request this as soon as possible.”
Dove responds at 3:43 p.m. and includes Sopko and others:
Thanks Carol and appreciate the chat.
Mr. Sopko, Gene, and John,
Bottom Line: State thinks some of the information in our reports (think Afghan companies/contract information) could put individuals at heightened risk given recent developments in Afghanistan. From my perspective, scrubbing OUR reports would be onerous and not timely (consider the work to just scrub our published financial audits). One option may be to temporarily disable certain portions of the website while the dust settles in Afghanistan and we decide on a long‐term solution—I am not sure the implication of such action given our Congressional mandate to make our reports public, though. This decision is obviously above my paygrade. For what it is worth, my advice would be to consider working with State on this; State is already taking action websites it/USAID controls and the other OIGs/GAO may be taking similar action. I am standing by to move out as instructed or to pass the ball to you for action
On August 16, 2021, at 4:06 p.m. Sopko writes to SIGAR staff: “Do not take anything down until we receive an official request in writing”
At 4:15 p.m., Sopko notifies Dove that Clay’s approval of removing the reports is “not sufficient. I want it from the secretary or deputy secretary or as the minimum her boss. She is a mere office director. What is the basis of her conclusion that reports that have been public for years are now causing a risk. I repeat do not pull anything down until we get a better and more authoritative request.”
In an email to SIGAR staff, also on August 16, Sopko reiterates his opposition to removing the reports:
Let me repeat. Do not do anything on her request until and unless we receive something in writing from her boss or a senior political appointee. You can advise her if your prior mistake I [sic] agreeing without first clearing it with the IG. Pulling old public documents make no sense since they have been available for years. It also violates the IG act.
At 4:51 p.m. on August 16, Dove writes to Clay: “The IG would like a formal request from the Comptroller, or above, that outlines the request, the reason for the request, and how/why the Department came to the conclusion that reports that have already been made publicly available now pose a new/heightened risk. Standing by to chat if you’d like to discuss.”
FYSA, I just talked to Carole Clay at State (the originator of this request). As I mentioned when this all first came up, State was working with GAO/IGs to get them to take similar action.
GAO agreed (as you and I did). Since the request on Monday, GAO has temporarily pulled 424 reports dealing with Afghanistan down from its site.
I thought that would further confirm the sound reasoning for our action.
On August 18, 2021, Sopko notes to Clay and others, that scrubbing the SIGAR website of public reports would be a “violation of the IG Act.” After a plea from top State Department officials, the reports were removed from the SIGAR site:
Carole, this is a highly unusual request without any explanation or justification for why you are requesting that we review and delete certain documents that have been posted on our web site — all in violation of the IG Act [see here]. Many of the records you are talking about have been up on our web for 10 or more years and my IT people tell me even if we delete them they are still out there in the internet since there are numerous programs readily available that regularly sweep and capture such material. I would prefer someone at State who is a political appointee explain in writing why you are making such a request as well as what is the basis of the threat and how this very labor intensive request will accomplish anything other than waste taxpayer dollars. John Sopko, SIGAR
On August 19, 2021, the State Department’s Comptroller Jeffrey Mounts writes to Sopko, claiming that it was necessary to remove the reports from federal websites over concern for “the welfare of vendors and individuals who have conducted work with the Department and who have yet to exit Afghanistan:”
Dear Mr. Sopko:
The Department of State is concerned about the welfare of vendors and individuals who have conducted work with the Department and who have yet to exit Afghanistan. Identifying information regarding these individuals is well documented among your audit, inspection, and financial audits/costs incurred audit reports. The Department formally requests that you temporarily suspend website access to these reports until these individuals can safely exit the country.
We acknowledge that the information has already been made publicly available, but we have reason to believe that this week’s events represent extraordinary circumstances of heightened risk and that temporarily removing access to reports with identifying information could possibly shield some of these individuals from harm. The potential benefit of keeping State partners out of harm’s way during these evacuations far exceeds the temporary loss of access to SI GAR reports, and we hope you will help us do what we can to make the current situation safer for our partners.
On August 31, a spokesperson for SIGAR admitted to the media that the agency pulled reports offline: “In recent days, some SIGAR reports have been temporarily removed from the agency’s public website due to ongoing security concerns in accordance with guidance received from the U.S. Department of State. This is in line with actions taken by other U.S. federal agencies and is out of an abundance of caution.”
“These extraordinary emails document a cover-up and unprecedented government censorship to protect Joe Biden and his administration from further humiliation over its surrender in Afghanistan,” stated Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton
In October 2021, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Defense for videos and photos of Afghans clinging to or falling off U.S. military aircraft at the Kabul airport