Behind the Scenes: Questions, Lawsuits and, Eventually, Some Answers

State Department resisted handing over PEPFAR spending documents

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The government program is funded entirely with public money. It has nothing to do with national security. And it appears to spotlight the Bush administration's "compassionate conservative" profile.

It would seem, in other words, to be just the kind of program officials would gladly share with journalists.

But it took about two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests; lawsuits against the State Department, Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); and a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to get access to information about the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), President Bush's five-year, $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS abroad. PEPFAR is managed through the newly created Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC) at the State Department.

During the investigation, reporters encountered PEPFAR officials who couldn't answer basic questions about the program they oversee, recipients of PEPFAR money who were reluctant to criticize their donor out of fear of losing funding and Freedom of Information Act requests that were stalled for months.

In general, U.S. government officials in the field overseas were more knowledgeable and readily available to answer questions than Washington bureaucrats and press officers. Requests for interviews and information from OGAC's Washington office were often ignored; dozens of phone calls and emails were never returned.

About a dozen ICIJ reporters and researchers, working from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Haiti, Thailand and India, investigated the impact of the U.S. government's HIV policies and programs. Additional reporting was done in Washington by ICIJ staff.

Reporters, most of them from the countries they wrote about, traveled to remote places to document how U.S. funds and policies are helping — or not helping — to fight one of the deadliest infectious diseases in history. Their stories and findings illuminate the complexities involved in foreign aid, especially when it comes with restrictions.

However, many questions remain unanswered about how the U.S. government has spent more than $8.3 billion allocated through PEPFAR to date.

Many of the answers are in a massive State Department database called the Country Operational Plan Reporting System, which is constantly being updated with financial and programmatic information coming from the field.

The State Department wrote to ICIJ that the reproduction of part of the database was not possible and that if experts were to provide it, the service would cost ICIJ $300,000.

After a yearlong lawsuit and under a schedule arbitrated by a federal court, the State Department released a different dataset of PEPFAR money flows for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. When the numbers didn't always add up, State Department lawyers acknowledged that the database contained some errors. However, they said that the figures provided were "the best information available" and that the database was "slowly improving over time."

The lawsuit was eventually settled on November 1, 2006. The State Department committed to release to ICIJ 2006 PEPFAR figures in February 2007. ICIJ decided not to publish the PEPFAR 2004-2005 funding database provided by the State Department, because of the errors it contains. A smaller dataset of PEPFAR grants awarded and managed by USAID did not appear to have the same problems and is included in today's release.

While correspondents worked in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, Washington ICIJ staff members continued pressing the U.S. government for documentation on PEPFAR programs.

On June 29, the State Department released almost 12,000 records with program information on the 15 PEPFAR "focus countries." Funding data were redacted, however, in all of the documents. In a letter, the government said money figures were withheld because they consisted of "pre-decisional deliberative process material" — that is, they were "planned funding" figures, rather than committed funding.

Shortly after the release of those documents to ICIJ, the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator posted them on its Web site, http://foia.state.gov/COP.asp. Although financial figures are not included, the documents provide insight into the nature of the programs PEPFAR is running in each country, as well as the U.S. government's goals and expectations.

Freedom of Information Act requests were also filed with agencies that administer PEPFAR grants, such as USAID, the Department of Defense, the Peace Corps and the Department of Health and Human Services. Some of those requests with USAID and HHS are still pending. The records retrieved from the agencies enhanced and supplemented the reporters' work in the field; some of those documents are now available on ICIJ's Web site.

Incommunicado

Getting U.S. government officials to answer basic questions about the PEPFAR programs they oversee also proved to be a hurdle. Often, reporters had to wait long periods for responses from OGAC, many of which never came. In several instances, organizations receiving PEPFAR money had to request clearance from the U.S. government before talking to reporters.

A reporter was scheduled to interview a USAID official in Haiti, but the meeting was canceled and the journalist redirected to OGAC in Washington. In another instance, the Ethiopia PEPFAR coordinator was unable to answer any of a reporter's questions in a scheduled phone interview. He promised to get answers from those with "technical knowledge." But the interview was never resumed, despite repeated requests.

PEPFAR-funded organizations say the language they use in their press releases and other materials is closely monitored by U.S. government officials. Francesca Stuer, Family Health International director in Ethiopia, said in May that her organization had stopped writing press releases to avoid PEPFAR's scrutiny. For example, she pointed to an article FHI produced about one of its prevention programs for taxi drivers in Addis Ababa. The article was rewritten three times, she said, because U.S. government officials complained that "we didn't mention AB [abstinence and fidelity programs] enough." According to Stuer, the U.S. government "is constantly on the alert to any program that might draw attention or negative press."

Not all experiences in reporting this project were difficult. Several PEPFAR coordinators overseas talked at length with ICIJ reporters and provided details of their programs. Many organizations receiving PEPFAR funding shared financial information with reporters and facilitated visits to their programs in the field.

The stories, the documents and the data that ICIJ is publishing this week are not an exhaustive or conclusive analysis of PEPFAR, but they provide an in-depth look into the policies that may help or hurt millions of people around the world.

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