If you want to know whether the NSA is spying on you, making a FOIA request sounds like a smart idea. But it doesn't mean the super-secret agency has to give you a definitive answer.
ProPublica's Jeff Larson submitted a request for any data the National Security Agency had on him, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But he received a decidedly vague letter in response, claiming that telling him one way or another would aid "our adversaries."
The NSA may send you a similar response if you ask them about what information they have on you.
Freedom of Information Act
FOIA was passed in part to increase government transparency as well as provide the public a legal way to request information from government agencies.
The Act allows the public to request information such as:
- Court opinions,
- Legislative history and policy statements,
- Federal staff manuals, and
- Government agency records.
These requests are not always magic tickets to information, however, as some responses can take years.
NSA and FOIA
Despite information leaking about the NSA's involvement in the data monitoring program known as PRISM, the agency isn't much more likely to honor FOIA requests about the NSA's data file on you.
Even prior to the PRISM leak, federal courts had ruled that the NSA did not have to confirm or deny its involvement with media giant Google, even when faced with a FOIA request.
Part of the reason the NSA can stonewall a request for information is the potential threat to national security.
Glomar Responses and You
The boilerplate response to neither confirm nor deny the requested information is commonly called a Glomar denial. The term comes from the name of a ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which was the subject of an information request.
More than four decades ago, federal courts affirmed that intelligence agencies like the NSA can block FOIA requests "in the interest of national security" with a Glomar denial.
So unless you enjoy reading bureaucratic denial letters in your spare time, don't have high hopes for a FOIA request to the NSA.
- NSA FOIA Request Form (National Security Agency)
- Justice Watch FOIA Request is 'No-Match' for Tax Return Exemption (FindLaw's D.C. Circuit Blog)
- FOIA Request: What's on the Pentagon's Playlist? (FindLaw's Courtside)
- Freedom of Information Act (FindLaw's LawBrain)