Sarah Abdurrahman is a producer for On the Media
I did a FOIA on myself, and all I got were these lousy letters
Wednesday, May 09, 2012 - 10:41 AM
In February, I sent out numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to different government agencies to see if they had any information on me in their files. I received my response letters from most of the agencies, and they're on the one hand fairly anticlimactic, and on the other hand illuminating of how potentially weak FOIA can be.
First there were the agencies that said they didn't have any information about me—unless I could tell them specifically that they did have information about me. In response to my FOIA request, the FBI said:
We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIPA. If you have additional information pertaining to the subject that you believe was of investigative interest to the Bureau, please provide us the details and we will conduct an additional search.
Similarly, the Defense Intelligence Agency said they couldn’t find anything on me, but that I could appeal their response if I thought they should have records on me and could explain exactly why.
Now I'm not saying that the FBI or the DIA have information about me that they aren't giving out—I have no reason to believe that either agency is collecting my information. But their responses illustrated a fundamental problem with FOIA requests: if you can't tell the agencies exactly what you are looking for, they might not be able to find it. If the whole reason you're doing the FOIA is to find out if the government is collecting information about you, and if so, what kind of information, then you can't really specify what you are looking for, can you?
This brings me to the other fundamental flaw with FOIA and the second type of letter I received—the hiding-behind-an-exemption type. Here is the CIA’s response to my FOIA request:
The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request. The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified…therefore, you may consider this portion of the response a denial of your request pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3)...
They attached a handy key to explain the FOIA exemptions: (b)(1) "exempts from disclosure information currently and properly classified, pursuant to an Executive Order" and (b)(3) exempts anything that "another federal statute protects, provided that the other federal statute either requires that the matters be withheld, or establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." (It would have been useful if they had attached another key to explain their convoluted explanations.)
The National Security Agency had a similarly cryptic "we're not saying that we do or don't, but if we did, we wouldn’t tell you…" response, but first, they gave me a little bit of background on their job description:
You may be aware that one of the NSA/CSS missions is to collect, process and disseminate communications or signals intelligence information for intelligence and counter intelligence purposes and to support military operations. NSA collects information on unspecified persons and entities to prevent and protect activities directed against the United States, international criminal drug activities, and other hostile activities directed against the United States.
Why the bureaucracy lesson? They were trying to let me down easy:
The classified nature of the national security agency’s efforts prevents us from either confirming or denying the existence of intelligence records on you, or any other named individual...Thus, your request is denied pursuant to the first exemption of the FOIA...
Again, I have no reason to believe that either of these agencies are collecting information about me, but these answers make me wonder about the potential for government agencies to abuse the broad definition of what can be exempt from a FOIA request. It seems like it would be very easy to hide behind a FOIA exemption if an agency just really didn't want to release some information, and the only way to know if said information fell under a FOIA exemption would be to, well, FOIA it. My FOIA requests were just a fun exercise in government paperwork, but a "we can't confirm nor deny" response to a FOIA request could be very frustrating to someone who really needs that information.
The one agency that I felt confident might have a file on me is the Secret Service, as I explained to Bob on our show when I first started this project. They haven't processed my request yet, but sent me a letter letting me know that they are working on it. I don't blame them for the delay though—they probably have their hands full these days.