NSA FOIA Response Claims Data On Vendor Contracts 'Unsearchable'
from the it's-easier-to-not-find-something-when-you-don't-bother-looking-for-it dept
Trying to pry information loose from the NSA is nearly impossible. The ODNI has been dropping documents related to the NSA’s various surveillance programs, but that’s as a result of a lawsuit, something that goes completely unacknowledged at the ODNI’s site. People requesting a peek into what the NSA has collected on them PERSONALLY have been universally met with a boilerplate response that “neither confirms nor denies” the existence of this data.
MuckRock has been filing dozens of FOIA requests in hopes of freeing up info on the many contractors employed by the NSA. Unsurprisingly, this has met with little success. While it did manage to secure 16 pages on French security firm Vupen, its other requests have been met with claims that no responsive documents have been found. This is hard to believe considering some of the requests are about known NSA contractors.
But one recent response went past baffling into the realm of the surreal in its assertion that the keywords MuckRock sought info on were just too “wide open” to be useful.
A search for overly broad keywords such as “CNO” and “computer network attack” would be tantamount to conducting a manual search through thousands of folders and then reading each document in order to determine whether the document pertains to a contract.
So, the agency that claims to be able to sift through millions of pieces of communications and data somehow claims it can’t wrangle its own data. Of course, the NSA can’t even search its own internal email, so asking it to run a keyword search for contract documents is probably out of the question. But this assertion by the NSA is a bit puzzling, as it almost implies a lot of what’s being searched for isn’t even digitized, as MuckRock points out.
In other words, the NSA is claiming that, for external contractors, large portions of its $10.8 billion budget are tracked primarily through paper indices not searchable even by relatively broad topic.
In addition, the agency’s response appears to be saying that they don’t even have a designated place to store paper copies of contracts, but place them in folders with other documents.
So, how does the agency track its interactions with its “vendors?” Does it even matter? The agency’s own budget is secret (though not so much anymore), so a lack of solid accounting hardly matters. But it’s still rather disturbing to see such a deliberately cavalier attitude towards accountability.
How do they keep track of their activities if they don’t have an electronic contracts database? How do they, as a complex organization, determine budgetary needs if they cannot easily track their own spending? How do they measure the performance of vendor contracts, if as they claim, the contracts are shuffled to some paper file that may not see the light of day unless someone requests it through a FOIA request?
As MuckRock points out, this obfuscation is likely deliberate. The NSA is a data black hole. Lots of info flows in but it rarely, if ever, leaves. Any questions those charged with approving funding might have can be waved away by citing magic words like “national security,” and that’s even before its flacks in the halls of Congress start erecting roadblocks.
Almost certainly the NSA has very effective ways of searching its own internal files. After all, its defenders often boast about the number of geniuses it employs. It just has no compelling reason to do so. Even being compelled by courts to kick loose documents has its limits. As we saw just recently, a court order to declassify the government’s secret opinion on the Section 215 collections was flat out refused by the DOJ. If the FISA court can’t get the government to comply, then average citizens have no chance whatsoever.
MuckRock is continuing to assault the NSA’s FOIA defenses. It’s hoped that with enough requests, info will be pried loose that will indicate what sorts of keywords generate responsive documents — and which ones result in ridiculous “this is impossible” statements from the agency.