NSA flooded with requests for records

| Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

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.

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