If your neighbor tried to kill someone, would you want to know? What if they were charged with child abuse, domestic violence, felony assault, drunk driving or fleeing police?
According to the U.S. Department of State, that’s classified and secret information if it involves foreign diplomats working on American soil.
“It should make people angry,” said Nate Jones at the National Security Archive. “They’re using a classification stamp to keep this stuff secret. It’s not national security but people being sloppy with secrecy.”
The News4 I-Team has been embroiled in a seven-year battle to access the names of foreign diplomats accused of violent and dangerous crimes. It began in 2008, when we filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department, asking for a list of diplomats charged with our nation’s most serious driving offenses.
In 2014, six years into our fight, we received a partial list of offenders pulled over by police between 2001 and 2009. We found one-third were caught drinking and driving, some going more than 100 mph, while others were charged with hit-and-run and trying to elude police.
We also uncovered employees working for the Saudi Arabia embassy had four times as many tickets for reckless driving, DUI and possession of marijuana than any other country's embassy. The embassy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But the list we received was incomplete – it only went to 2010 and didn’t provide basic information like the suspect’s first name or the location of the crime. Instead, we pieced many of those details together by making more than a dozen visits to our local courthouses. That’s how we discovered many of the names were actually repeat violators with additional charges not included on the State Department’s list.
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In an effort to get more up-to-date records, we filed a formal FOIA appeal in 2014. A panel made up of three ambassadors ruled the State Department had to give us a more recent list dating from 2010 to 2012.
But this new list was missing even more information – critical information like names and countries. All we got this time was a list of dates and crimes – with no way of telling where they happened or who committed the crime.
“The State Department is bending over backwards to not embarrass diplomats,” Jones told us after reviewing our documents. “The people who are doing the redacting are doing it willy nilly and erring too much on the side of secrecy.”
Jones and his group at the National Security Archive use FOIA to win access to politically sensitive documents on topics like Iran Contra, CIA human experiments and White House emails.
Even though federal law says you should receive a response to any FOIA within 20 days, Jones and his group have been waiting 23 years for what many believe to be the oldest outstanding FOIA – a request to review documents from the 1940s on British negotiations over nuclear weapons testing.
Jones told us waiting seven years to get a list of crimes without any names “is really against President Obama’s directive” to make government records more accessible to the public.
He wondered if the State Department “decided to purposefully redact information because they didn’t like your report.”
But the agency’s transparency coordinator, Ambassador Janice L. Jacobs, disagreed. “We have people in our office that are trained in FOIA law and they do redactions very carefully.”
Jacobs said she was brought on last October to fix the State Department’s FOIA problems. “It definitely needs improvement,” she said. “But Secretary John Kerry is very committed to transparency and open government.”
She found FOIA requests have tripled since 2008, with her office now responding to more than 20,000 requests a year. She said she hired an additional 50 people to process those requests (bringing the total number to almost 150 employees) and is now looking at new technology to speed up response times. “Our responses are taking too long,” she admitted. “I would love it if we made the 20-day limit, but the truth is not many federal agencies can meet that because there is so much information you have to search.”
But Adam Marshall at the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said refusing to release the names of diplomats accused of committing crimes “goes beyond negligence” since the information we requested contained “true public safety threats involving people hurting other people.”
Diplomatic Violent Crimes
Because, as we waited for the updated list of diplomatic drivers, we put in a second FOIA asking for a list of all diplomats accused of committing other types of crimes while working in the United States.
The list we received contains 30 crimes reported between 2012 and 2014, including an Ethiopian diplomat who returned to his home country after being accused of “assault with intent to kill while armed.” Another was sent back to Equatorial Guinea after being accused of “malicious wounding,” while a diplomat from Morocco had to stand trial here in the United States for “robbery” and “purse snatching.” Other crimes on the list include fleeing and eluding police, armed robbery, larceny, prostitution and a wide variety of assaults and property crimes.
But we don’t know where these crimes occurred or who committed them. Nor do we always know what happened to them. There are charges of child abuse and domestic violence against diplomats from Indonesia, Venezula, Bolivia, Malawi and the Phillipines. In each of those cases, the Department of State lists “Unknown” for what happened to the suspect.
“The hallmark of the American criminal process is that prosecutions and convictions are open and done in an open court,” Marshall said. “We don’t have secret criminal prosecutions. But it’s impossible for the public to figure out what happened to these diplomats.”
The State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions is in charge of tracking diplomatic bad behavior. The office’s director, Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, said, “We take the responsibility of protecting the American public very seriously.”
“We’re not shy about going after matters if they impact the public” to “ensure the public is safe,” he continued. “We have a robust enforcement program where we do monitor the activities of anyone brought to our attention” by local law enforcement. “We have no tolerance for violent crimes. If they don’t have diplomatic immunity, they go through our criminal courts. If they have immunity, they go back to their country.”
We had previously reported the State Department told us it kicked 45 diplomats out of the country in a two-year period.
He said violent offenders also lose their diplomatic visas and are tracked by the State Department so they cannot reenter the United States.
But while the notion of diplomatic immunity might protect these foreign workers from prosecution, Jones said, “It does not mean they shouldn’t have to release a name because it might embarrass diplomats.”
“What is really upsetting and worrisome,” Marshall continued, “is your original story pointed out that the State Department isn’t even tracking or isn’t aware of repeat offenders. Inhibiting the public to track repeat offenders is a really serious problem for public safety and is putting people’s safety in jeopardy.”
For both of our FOIAs, the State Department cited privacy exemptions for why it wouldn’t release names and other critical information. Both Jones and Marshall said the agency should have made the names public because federal law requires agencies to weigh public interest against an individual’s right to privacy. “The public needs to know there are people out there committing serious crimes,” Marshall explained. “These are very serious charges.”
“If the public doesn’t know their name and the government doesn’t know what happened to them,” Marshall explained, “then it’s impossible for the public to figure out what happened, and that is a true public safety threat.”