HONOLULU >> Hawaii officials have repeatedly pointed to a low-level state employee and a breakdown in his agency’s leadership as the main cause for a January missile alert that left hundreds of thousands of islanders thinking they might die in a nuclear blast. But efforts to find out more about what other top officials did that day have been stymied at the highest levels of state government.
Hawaii law says opening the government to public scrutiny “is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”
But for nearly two months, Gov. David Ige’s office has refused to provide information requested by The Associated Press that could show how he and other officials handled the crisis.
Citing open-records law exemptions, Ige’s office has declined to release phone logs, text messages, instant messages and calendars related to the missile alert, even as the state moves forward with recommendations to implement a new missile alert system.
His office says it does not keep those documents.
“We are not aware of any state agency that maintains the governor’s office cell/ office phone records, instant messages or text messages,” Ige’s Senior Special Assistant Donna Fujimoto-Saka said in an email.
She added that Ige’s office receives bills from the phone company, “but these bills do not contain any record of incoming or outgoing calls.”
The AP sent a similar request for emails, phone logs and text messages to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the department that sent the alert, on Feb. 5. It has not yet received any documents from the agency.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is leaving her seat in Congress to challenge Ige in the state’s gubernatorial race, said Tuesday she is troubled by the lack of transparency from the agency and her opponent.
“Given the public panic and pain caused by those 38 minutes of uncertainty, we must have a transparent accounting of the facts,” she said in an emailed statement. “It’s the only way to regain the public trust.”
Hawaii isn’t alone in its handling of records for cellphones, text messages and other modern forms of communication.
Accessing such documents is a problem “across all levels of government” in the United States, in part because many agencies lack policies and practices for storing, archiving and searching them, said Adam Marshall, Knight Foundation litigation attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Washington.
“That can be really problematic, especially when they show what the government officials are doing in their official capacity,” Marshall said.
Ige’s office has agreed to release some documents requested by the AP, primarily emails that are subject to redaction, but has levied hefty fees to process them. An initial estimate of nearly $4,500 was given to fill a request for emails to and from the governor’s staff on the day of the alert. A narrowed request for four senior staff members’ emails was met with a roughly $1,500 fee.
The federal law for access to government documents allows fee waivers for journalists seeking information that has public interest. States also grant waivers but can charge for things like the amount of time spent searching, sorting and redacting information, leading to a patchwork of fees nationwide.
In Hawaii’s case the state’s $60 waiver is often outweighed by its fees, especially for emails, said R. Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which advocates for open government in Hawaii.
Drawn-out negotiations for documents and slow responses from agencies can diminish the information’s value.
Among the criticisms of Hawaii’s handling of the missile alert was the time it took to inform people there was no actual threat. Residents and visitors waited about 40 minutes before official messages from state agencies were sent to all points that received the initial warning.
If North Korea launched a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, officials say it would take as little as 12 minutes to reach Hawaii after an alert goes out. The first word of the Jan. 13 mistake — a social media post from Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency — came at about the same time as a real missile would have hit the islands.
Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.