CIA Tells FOIA Requester It Can Only Make PDFs By Printing Out Electronic Documents And Re-Scanning Them

from the no-tactic-is-too-stupid-when-it-comes-to-dodging-FOIAs dept

The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to make the government more transparent and responsive to its employers: the American public. The Act has indeed provided a level of transparency that wasn’t present before its enactment, but the law is also loaded with a ton of exemptions that make it easy for government agencies to dodge requests.

The Obama administration itself — the supposed “most transparent administration in history” — is one of the worst offenders. As Mike covered earlier, administration-directed agencies have abused these exemptions hundreds of thousands of times in the last five years. Even when the agencies have been “responsive,” they’ve still been mostly unresponsive. The FBI’s documents on warrantless GPS tracking were handed to the ACLU with 111 pages redacted entirely.

Many other documents are now the subject of ongoing lawsuits against the government for its refusals and redactions. Nearly every document cut loose by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been the result of a lawsuit brought by the EFF against the government for violating the Freedom of Information Act.

Secrecy News brings us the story of yet another lawsuit being brought against the government for FOIA-related ridiculousness. Jeffrey Scudder, a 23-year veteran of the intelligence community, is seeking 419 articles from the CIA journal “Studies in Intelligence.” He has specifically requested these be provided as “softcopy” (i.e., electronic files), which would only make sense, considering the amount of responsive documents. However, the agency has gone deliberately pants-on-head stupid to make this simple request an annoyance for everyone involved.

Mr. Scudder told the court that he has detailed knowledge of CIA information systems and capabilities. In his FOIA requests, he was able to inform the CIA FOIA staff “as to where within the [CIA] computer systems the electronically stored documents [that he is requesting] are located.”

However, CIA refused to release the documents in the requested electronic format. Instead, the Agency proposed to print them out and to release them only in hard copy, ostensibly for security reasons.

Citing “security,” the CIA decided it would only comply if it could fell a small forest. Obviously, this route is a complete inconvenience for everyone involved. I’m sure the CIA would have preferred Scudder simply drop his request after being confronted with the agency’s insistence on performing this task in the least efficient way possible. (Government agencies often tend to less efficiency, especially when it’s in service of sandbagging FOIA requesters, who are expected to pick up the tab for the agency’s wasteful tactics.)

Scudder refused to take boxes of paper for an answer and requested again that the CIA keeps associated costs down by grabbing the electronic files and burning them to a CD-ROM or two. The CIA responded to Scudder’s insistence by hitching up the belt on its head pants.

“The defendant [CIA] avers that if it were ordered to honor the plaintiff’s [FOIA] request [for soft copy records], it would have to print the existing electronic documents to paper and then rescan them into electronic documents so that they may be reproduced and released on removable media,” Judge Howell summarized.

Scudder politely called the CIA’s convoluted response process an “administrative gimmick” designed to frustrate the requester and impose “unreasonable financial burdens.” Judge Howell sides with Scudder on this.

“Congress anticipated that recalcitrant agencies would resist being responsive to requesters’ format choices,” wrote Judge Beryl A. Howell of the DC District Court last week, and so Congress required agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate requesters’ preferences.

She called the CIA’s process “Rube Goldbergian” and pointed out that, while the law requires responding agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to fulfill requests, that should not be taken to mean that agencies can simply employ convoluted processes in order to make responding suddenly “unreasonable.”

Scudder has also pointed out (via Howell’s opinion) that he has used the CIA’s classified system in the past to create PDFs, something the agency claims is beyond its capabilities. Despite this clearly being an issue of government agency stonewalling, Judge Howell hasn’t granted summary judgement to either side, citing both parties’ allegations of “bad faith.” However, she has granted Scudder’s motion for discovery, which means the government will once again appear in court to defend its refusal to follow its own laws.

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Comments on “CIA Tells FOIA Requester It Can Only Make PDFs By Printing Out Electronic Documents And Re-Scanning Them”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Makes sense

Really, printing and scanning back makes sense.

Many “redacted” documents have been “un-redacted” by copy-and-paste, because the document creator just added a black bar over the text, not knowing that doing it does not remove the text, only adds an extra “black bar” object.

Printing reliably “flattens” the pages, so what you see is all you get. If there is a black bar, there’s nothing below it.

Of course, there is a smarter way to do it: print to an image, discard the original, and convert the image back to PDF. Same effect as printing to paper, sans the tree-killing.

But they will never do it the smart way, because the dumb way got codified in some internal rule book, and they can’t possibly deviate from the rule book, else Snowden will rise from the grave and rape their children (or something like that).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Makes sense

People make mistakes, this “do it properly” you refer to is impossible given human error.

Printing the document, redacting with a sharpie, then scanning is a pretty good way to ensure that the data they do not want to share is not accidentally shared. On top of that, if they forget to redact something it will be much harder?to find if the document is paper or a scan of paper. ( security through obscurity ) searchable electronic documents would make it easier for people to automate piecing things together from multiple requests.

1/3 paper and sharpie is rather fool proof
1/3 we’re the CIA, f you and your requests!
1/3 we don’t want you to have searchable documents because well f you!

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Makes sense

Adobe Acrobat (Adobe’s PDF creator) has an actual specific redaction MODE. There is a tool that says something like “redaction tool” that performs, you know, actual redactions of the selected area rather than just ‘black-boxing’ it.

There also a function, I think it’s called ‘sanitizing’ or something similiar, within Acrobat that destroys all the metadata fields in the PDF to remove the author information and all other information specifically for public releases of documents.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Call the bluff

If the CIA is saying that it absolutely has to print out all the document, then scan them again to make PDF versions, while the one requesting the documents is claiming that no, in fact, they don’t need to do any such thing, then the judge should set a deadline for the CIA to hand over the requested files in digital format, and if they fail the one making the request is allowed to, under court approved supervision, get the document himself, in the process showing just how easy it is to do what they claim is impossible.

IWPCHI (profile) says:

Someone needs to tell Mr. Scudder the CIA knows very well...

… how to make .pdfs. Their “Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room” at offers up (perhaps exclusively) .pdfs for download. We have been downloading them for the past week from this section of their site right here:

If Judge Howell was pointed in the direction of that link just above these lines, he’d most likely be very unhappy with the CIA lawyers’ argument, don’t you think?

Workers of the World, Unite!

Independent Workers Party of Chicago

Avatar says:

Reasonably speaking, if you’re going to redact a document, then producing the original electronic version is pretty much out of the question.

That said, this sort of thing is more complicated and expensive than you’d think. We do this for law firms (answering discovery requests for large numbers of documents) and the expense isn’t trivial; hundreds of dollars per gigabyte of data. And we’re working on utterly boring office paperwork most of the time, not national security stuff – our expenses would be considerably higher if everyone who touched the stuff had to have clearance. And yes, as the anon said above, probably the procedure to be followed was codified in the 1980s when the computer time was a lot more expensive than the printer time, while these days it’s the other way around…

Arioch (profile) says:

Re: Freedom of information

Avatar, when you say “Reasonably speaking, if you’re going to redact a document, then producing the original electronic version is pretty much out of the question.”

I call bullshit on this.

This is a reasonable FOI request from an interested party.
Are you trying to tell me that despite it’s boasting of an incredibly sophisticated computer system the CIA struggles to work with this?

Is PDF format too complex for your minimum wage employees?

Printed and then scanned? Don’t make me laugh.

But if that is the only way to supply these documents then, if it was me, I would offer ?10 for post and packing and insist on delivery

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

the only way to be sure that a nontech-savvy worker won’t miss embedded data.

That’s the problem. This is the CIA, not Podunkville town hall. Somewhere in all the billions they scare and blackmail out of Congress they can find the money to hire, train, and equip competent people who know how to use the tools of 21st Century business to fulfill these requests.

They just don’t want to.

Anonymous Coward says:

obligatory quote

“They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders – signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.”

Anonymous Coward says:

To everyone saying “well it’s easier to get information you shouldn’t be able to get from a softcopy”:
Shaddup. Most of the redactions are more likely “we just don’t want you to see how we flush the Constitution down the toilet” than actual national security. Remember that guy who requested the same document multiple times and got different redactions on it each time? That suggests the redactions are done at the discretion of whoever doesn’t want you to know what they’re doing.

fgoodwin (profile) says:

I’ve worked in government agencies to which people have submitted confidential “redacted” electronic files.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell the submitter that their redaction didn’t actually do what it was supposed to do; i.e., the redacted text could easily be recovered. Oh, and the documents were subject to state-level FOIA laws.

So to those telling the agency to simply redo them and do it right, it’s more complicated than that.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

oh horseshit, if i were so inclined, i could point out a dozen or more ‘weaknesses’ of the print out/redact/copy scenario as well…
not the least of which, is you are MULTIPLYING the copies of documents which means it is MORE LIKELY to be exposed…

which is more vulnerable:
A. a file locked up in a server somewhere with -presumably- some controls and limits on who can access it,
B. a non-descript pile of thousands of pages which ANYONE could walk off with and no one would be the wiser…

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