Justice Department Uses Red Tape To Delay Release Of Required Information On Domestic Spying Until Well After It Matters

from the most-transparent-administration-in-history! dept

A couple of months ago, Julian Sanchez wrote about the ridiculous situation in which he filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to reveal the latest semi-annual report from the Justice Department concerning how it was implementing the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. As we’ve been discussing, for a while, how the FISA Amendments Act broadly expanded the ability of federal law enforcement, in particular the NSA, to spy on everyone. While there is some language that suggests it’s only supposed to be used on foreigners, it’s been revealed that there is a secret interpretation of the bill, that likely allows them to use a loophole (plus the secret interpretation) to collect and review tons of data on Americans. The FAA is up for renewal, and it’s likely that Congress will rush through a five year extension — despite overwhelming evidence that many in Congress don’t know how the NSA is interpreting the bill (and even making statements that directly contradict the evidence of how the bill is being used).

The law does require the “semi-annual” report mentioned above, and thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU, the courts have said that the government is required to release redacted versions of those documents. Which is why it was crazy when Sanchez initially filed his FOIA request to see the most recent versions, arguing (quite reasonably) that such documents were inherently important in the debate over the FAA’s renewal, that the DOJ initially told him that it had to deny his request because it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records in these files responsive to your request.” That was obviously bullshit. Once again: the report is required by law, and the courts have already said that the content is subject to FOIA requests. Thankfully, after Sanchez went public with the ridiculousness of the situation, the DOJ quickly admitted the original response was a mistake, and promised they’d get right on finding the documents.

Sanchez now has an update of the situation, which is almost as ridiculous as the original story.

By mid-September, just under three months after my initial request went in, I was informed that they’d identified the reports I was looking for and forwarded them to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for a declassification review, which they expected would be completed by early November. Joy! Would we actually get information about an intelligence program out of the government without a lawsuit? Maybe even in time to have a semi-informed public debate?

Well, no. ODNI informed me earlier this month that they were wrapping up their review and redaction Any Day Now, at which point… their redacted version would be forwarded, one at a time, to every other intelligence agency whose activities were referenced in the report. At each agency, it would go to the back of the line of FOIA requests, exactly as though it had just been submitted for the first time. Estimated time before a heavily censored version of these reports see the light of day: Another six months. At least. By which time, it won’t matter much what these reports say about NSA’s use of its sweeping powers, because Congress will have already given them another five years of spying authority.

Notice what this means in practice: Even though a court has already established, thanks to an ACLU lawsuit, that they are legally required to release redacted versions of these reports to the public on request, a cumbersome bureaucratic process effectively guarantees that it takes a solid year to get this information out, which means at best you’re working with what the assessment found two reports ago, allowing the government to assert that they’ve fixed whatever problems were found. In this case, the timing of the review process conveniently guarantees that whatever we learn will come far too late to influence this year’s vote on FAA powers, but be old news by the time Congress takes up the question again. It’s a little hard to swallow the claim that all this delay is remotely necessary: Are we really supposed to believe that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will be so slipshod about letting sensitive classified information through that their work has to be independently double checked by every other intelligence agency? And that this process has to take six months or longer, even after ODNI has done their initial review and redaction? Of course it doesn’t: This is a bureaucratic procedure designed, not to protect national security, but to allow stalling on the release of politically inconvenient information that the courts won’t allow to be completely hidden from the public.

Once again, this seems to raise questions about the process here — and how much of it really has to do with law enforcement officials being careful… and how much of it is purely political, seeking to hide damaging information that might impact the FAA renewal.

Furthermore, as Sanchez notes, the very idea that he had to file a FOIA for this information is troubling by itself:

What we should really be asking is why I had to submit this request at all. In his first days in office, after all, President Obama issued a directive not only urging agencies to err on the side of disclosure, but to adopt a policy of proactive release of documents likely to be of public interest. Surely if there were any doubt about the public interest in the use of sweeping surveillance powers, it should have been put to rest after the ACLU won release of the earliest compliance reports. So why didn’t the Justice Department follow President Obama’s directive and draft these reports with an eye toward preparing a declassified public version, knowing full well that civil liberties groups would come asking? Well, because then they wouldn’t be able to obfuscate and delay for months and months. Because then the public might be able to have an informed discussion about the secret surveillance powers we’ve given our spy agencies before we vote to extend them. Heaven forfend.

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Comments on “Justice Department Uses Red Tape To Delay Release Of Required Information On Domestic Spying Until Well After It Matters”

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Anonymous Coward says:

At each agency, it would go to the back of the line of FOIA requests, exactly as though it had just been submitted for the first time.

Incorrect. FOIA Consultations and Referrals to other agencies are supposed to be processed according to the age of the initial request.

And the classification paranoia is stupid, but unfortunately has a basis. There are policies in place for portion marking and clear indications of derivative classification or original classification authority. Regrettably, these policies are widely ignored, settling for the outdated practice of putting classification on the header and the footer and calling it a day. So you get a collaborative dosument from seven different offices, each which threw in their own sensitive information. Due to the rules of classification accountability, there’s no choice but to have the classified document reviewed by a subject matter expert if not the original classification authority.

There are all sorts of similar rules and policies in place for FOIA. But there’s no real pressure from up top on keeping these rules in place. No one in significant authority feels their position is endangered by neglecting FOIA, so it’s not a priority.

Your best bet for change would be to put pressure on your congressmen. They’ll in turn put pressure on the FOIA program. Which will in turn hold up FOIA processing because the FOIA offices will have to prepare reports telling the congressmen why their constituents are unhappy. In theory, repeatedly applying such pressure will turn FOIA into a political priority. Or it could just piss everyone off and waste everyones’ time as every person in the chain of responsibility scrambles to cover their own ass.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Stupid question time...

If they were going to send the report out to all the affected agencies, to have them all do their own redactions, then why didn’t they do that in the first place, rather than wasting time by going over it themselves?

Also, I get the feeling that if the requested report ever actually sees the light of day, with all those agencies going over it, it’s going to be nothing but black, to the point of looking like someone replaced the pages with carbon paper.

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