Trevor Paglen

NSA logs reveal flood of post-Snowden FOIA requests

Al Jazeera has obtained access to full list of Freedom of Information Act queries submitted to security agency

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been flooded with thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from journalists, civil rights groups and private citizens who have asked the agency to turn over the top-secret records that former contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the media, Al Jazeera can reveal.

In response to an open records request filed in November, the NSA has just released its FOIA logs to Al Jazeera. The hundreds of pages of documents describe post-Snowden requests that have been filed with the agency — on matters from its bandwidth consumption and it sprawling new data center in Utah to metadata records and contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden’s former employer.

Since details about the NSA’s spy capabilities were revealed by The Guardian and The Washington Post 10 months ago, the agency’s FOIA office has been the subject of several national news stories noting that the leaks have resulted in thousands of new FOIA requests.

Details of those requests are revealed here for the first time and illustrate their extent as well as the logistical demands it has placed on the NSA. "FOIA requests continue to be received at a higher rate than in past years, although it has tapered off from the initial surge extremes in June and July 2013,” said Pamela Phillips, the NSA's FOIA chief.

"We have received over 5,200 requests since June 6, 2013," she told Al Jazeera. "We received just over 800 requests for the same period last year. For the one-year period from June 2012 through May 2013, we received an average of 83 requests per month. Since June 2013, we’ve received an average of 521 requests per month. Omitting June through August, which were extremely high, the monthly average for September 2013 through March 2014 is 283 — more than three times what it was in prior years.” 

To deal with the surge in requests, Phillips said the NSA's FOIA office has requested additional staff, "but to date, the staff has not been augmented."

FOIA requests to the NSA skyrocketed the day The Guardian published its first report based on the documents Snowden leaked: a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over call data to the NSA.

FOIA requests continue to be received at a higher rate than in past years, although it has tapered off from the initial surge extremes in June and July 2013.

Pamela Phillips

NSA FOIA chief

The NSA said the fiscal year 2013 logs went through a declassification review. The agency, citing a privacy exemption, withheld information about requests it received from individuals who sought information on themselves. Those types of requests, the FOIA logs indicated, make up a bulk of the requests the NSA has received since the Snowden leaks.

FOIA logs are usually of interest to transparency enthusiasts and government watchdog groups, which use the materials to measure whether Barack Obama's administration is adhering to promises of increased openness.

The initial Guardian report on Snowden prompted one person to file a FOIA request asking the NSA for a copy of “the phone records that have been obtained through this order” as well as “any other personal information that has been collected by the government without my permission and without just cause that may infringe on my right to privacy and my right against illegal search and seizure.”

The logs do not say how the NSA responded to that request and others like it, but a report published by McClatchy in February said the NSA has implemented a blanket policy of issuing "Glomars" to requesters who ask for records about whether they were the subject of surveillance. Named for the legal precedent set by the case over press coverage of the CIA's Glomar Explorer vessel, such responses deny requests because the agency can neither confirm nor deny that those records exist.

The policy was met with outrage and criticized by individuals who filed requests to determine whether the NSA was spying on them.

Phillips said if the agency were to confirm or deny whether one individual was the target of surveillance, then the agency would have to respond to everyone, including people the security services might consider enemies.

According to the logs, another requester sought records about whether local politicians in Texas were the subjects of NSA surveillance. He asked in his FOIA request whether the NSA has “ever uncovered a corrupt politician and done something about it?”

The NSA responded by informing the requester that the agency could neither confirm nor deny it had records that would answer his question.

The NSA responded by informing the requester that the agency could neither confirm nor deny it had records that would answer his question.

The logs indicate that several journalists have used the FOIA in the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures to try to force the NSA to be more transparent about its programs and policies.

Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima is one example. She filed an FOIA request with the agency on June 20, 2013, seeking documents about the details of and compliance with the NSA’s minimization procedures — rules it is supposed to follow when it picks up information on Americans' communications while targeting what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper termed "non-U.S. persons" for surveillance.

Jack Gillum of the Associated Press filed several requests, including one for “access to and copies of all emails and documents advising or discussing with U.S. or United Kingdom government officials the destruction or apprehension of computer hard drives and other electronic materials at The Guardian newspaper’s offices in 2013.”

Gillum told Al Jazeera the NSA is still processing his request. “They say they have responsive records, so they are likely redacting now,” Gillum said.

But the NSA continues to issue denial letters to a majority of requesters. Phillips explained that the NSA's "denial/grant [rate] is not available, since many of the requests have not been completed. There will be a higher full denial rate than in the past because of the much higher number of requests from individuals for intelligence records that have required 'neither confirm nor deny' responses." 

"As for requests for which documents are processed, very few are released as granted in full. If only the name of an NSA employee is redacted, it will be reported as a partial denial, even if substantive information is released. The NSA FOIA office continues to process documents with an eye toward transparency in order to release information that is not classified or otherwise exempt from release. Public interest is weighed against any harm in release when applying exemptions, other than for information that is currently and properly classified."

UFOs and Bilderberg

It remains to be seen whether the NSA intends to turn over records to Gillum or Nakashima. The NSA is practically exempt from the FOIA, since virtually everything it does is highly classified and protected from disclosure under a presidential order.

Yet there are some requesters who have lucked out by seeking other types of documents.

An individual who went by the name Dodge Story asked the NSA for a copy of its "Whistleblower Protection Policy, or any substitute that recognizes the protections to Whistleblowers under the No Fear Act, the Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1912, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007 and any other law which protects the rights of employees and contractors who report illegal activity within the government."

Story’s request, which was granted in full, according to the FOIA logs, appears to have been prompted by statements Snowden made in which he claimed that before he leaked NSA documents to reporters, he tried to raise his concerns about the agency’s surveillance programs with senior officials but was rebuffed. The NSA has said it does not have any records indicating Snowden tried to work internally.

Not every FOIA request the NSA has received after the Snowden leaks has been about surveillance.

In fact, requesters may find they have a better shot at accessing the NSA's records on UFOs. It worked for William Jackobs. On Aug. 15, 2013, he filed a request demanding that the NSA "declassify all UFO related documents and stop using the excuse we can’t because of national security issues."

The NSA obliged, according to the logs, responding that the request was granted in full.

Another FOIA requester, James Traficant, was looking for a wide range of records related to any support the NSA provided to the Bilderberg Conference from 2008 to 2013. The annual meeting of prominent global figures is at the center of numerous conspiracy theories.

The NSA told Traficant it could not locate any records in response to his June 7, 2013, request.

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