NSA flooded with requests for records
Fueled by the Edward Snowden scandal, more Americans than ever are asking the NSA whether their personal life is being spied on.
And the NSA has a very direct answer for them: Tough luck, we're not telling you.
Americans are inundating the National Security Agency with open records requests, leading to a 988 percent increase in such inquiries. Anyone asking is getting a standard pre-written letter saying the NSA can neither confirm nor deny that any information has been gathered.
“This was the largest spike we've ever had,” said Pamela Phillips, the chief of the NSA Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Office, which handles all records requests to the agency. “We've had requests from individuals who want any records we have on their phone calls, their phone numbers, their email addresses, their IP addresses, anything like that.”
News reports of the NSA's surveillance program motivates most inquirers, she said.
During the first quarter of the NSA fiscal year, which went from October to December, it received 257 open records requests. The next quarter, it received 241. However, on June 6, at the end of NSA's third fiscal quarter, news of Snowden's leaks hit the news, and the agency received 1,302 requests.
In the next three months, the NSA received 2,538 requests. The spike has continued into the fall months and has overwhelmed her staff, Phillips said.
Joel Watts, 35, of Charleston, W.Va., put in an open records request in June, days after learning about Snowden's leaks and the NSA's surveillance tactics. About three weeks later, he received a letter telling him the agency wouldn't say whether it had collected information on the health and safety administrator.
“It's a sign of disrespect to American citizens and the democratic process,” he said. “I should have the right to know if I'm being surveyed if there's no criminal procedures in process.”
Watts said he understands the need for secrecy when dealing with terrorism but thinks the NSA is violating constitutional rights by withholding information it might have on the American public.
The spike in inquiries, a backlog in responses and lack of information illustrates the limits of open records requests and the determination of the NSA to remain mum despite Snowden's historic leaks, experts say.
“People are legitimately troubled by the idea that the government is monitoring and collecting information about their email traffic, phone calls and who knows what else,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “There is a growing sense of horror every time there is a new report about the data.”
She said the NSA's failure to provide people with answers shows that the agency is burying its head in the sand. The tactic is successful, she said, because most people don't have the resources to fight for information through appeals or in court.
Even if people do fight, courts often side with intelligence agencies that say they want to protect national security, Weismann said.
Some requests simply state that a person wants any and all information the NSA has about them. Others go into detail and ask for specifics about how the NSA is run, how its surveillance program works and how the NSA has gone about collecting information.
While the NSA is hearing mostly from the public, journalists and civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center also are digging, Phillips said.
Her 19-person staff is struggling to deal with the surge in requests, she said. More than 900 are pending, but the NSA tries to get back to people in the 20 days required by law, she said.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Wreckage of sunken WWII U-boat found off N.C. coast
- Homeland Security orders new screening for Ebola
- Archaeologists sift through Everglades muck for history
- Chinese hackers busy, FBI warns
- Official’s job at cybersecurity firm vexes NSA
- Researchers try to soothe nerves jittery over Ebola virus
- Panetta skipped CIA’s OK of book, potentially putting agency in delicate position with others
- Justice Department revamps cyber teams
- Wrongful imprisonment case ends in guilty plea
- Teen’s pre-existing condition lead to death
- Maryland man set for trial in killing erroneously released