Can you point to Ukraine? It may be a while before you get your chance

State Department delays request for unlabeled map Mike Pompeo used to challenge NPR reporter

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department earlier this month. He used an unlabeled map in an attempt to stump NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly on the location of Ukraine. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department earlier this month. He used an unlabeled map in an attempt to stump NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly on the location of Ukraine. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted January 28, 2020 at 3:36pm

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a challenge for NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly after their interview Friday: Find Ukraine on a blank map.

Anyone who wants to see the map Pompeo used may face another challenge. Getting a copy could take months — or even years.

A simple request by CQ Roll Call for a copy of the map was put on a “complex processing track” Monday by the State Department because of “unusual circumstances.” That treatment is meant for the department’s most complicated and voluminous public records requests.

The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to provide responsive records within 20 business days, though they seldom meet that deadline. The State Department takes an average of 465 days to process requests it places on the complex track, according to its 2018 FOIA annual report.

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The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on what makes the request complex or why it needs additional time to process it.

Kelly pressed Pompeo during an interview Friday to say what he did to defend Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, before President Donald Trump recalled her in May 2019. After the interview, Pompeo reportedly showed Kelly the map while upbraiding her.

“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?,” Pompeo asked Kelly in the expletive-filled exchange, according to NPR.

Yovanovitch is at the center of one of the two articles of impeachment against Trump currently being tried in the Senate.

Pompeo accused Kelly in a statement Saturday of lying to him about what questions she would ask and whether their post-interview exchange would be off the record.

The secretary of State also made a cryptic allusion to a third country.

“It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine,” Pompeo said.

Kelly, a veteran national security reporter with a master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge University, has said that she identified Ukraine correctly when Pompeo asked.

Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, guffawed when he was told about the State Department’s response to the FOIA request.

“There has been a spike in the last year or so in agencies putting every request in the complex track,” McClanahan said. “It’s not all agencies, obviously. It’s not even all offices within the agencies. But it is completely arbitrary and without any rhyme or reason.”

There are several motives for the practice, according to McClanahan. Many agency FOIA offices are chronically understaffed, which can mean big backlogs. That can lead agencies to pull out all the stops — whether that’s placing almost every request in their complex track or claiming unusual circumstances as a matter of course — to buy more time.

The State Department’s FOIA office has long come under criticism from transparency advocates, McClanahan said.

“The State FOIA office is not the beacon of hope for FOIA and transparency,” he said.