Even With Its 'Public Facing' Tumblr Blog, The Intelligence Community Is Still Avoiding The Surveillance Discussion

from the IC-begrudges-the-record dept

We’ve discussed this several times before, almost always as a preface to any document release by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. NSA-related documents are now being declassified and handed over to public. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, delivers each document dump with a canned statement that almost always includes this sentence:

These orders are available at the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (http://www.dni.gov), and ODNI’s public website dedicated to fostering greater public visibility into the intelligence activities of the Government (IContheRecord.tumblr.com).

But the ODNI’s website isn’t necessarily as dedicated to this cause as Clapper’s introductory statement makes it appear. As we’ve pointed out before, nearly every document released has been the result of court orders in FOIA lawsuits pursued by the ACLU, EFF and EPIC. Others have been compelled by executive orders (Obama’s surveillance reforms) or are nothing more than official statements and press releases. There’s no transparency here, no intrinsic effort to “foster greater public visibility.” The agency has been forced out of the shadows and its awkward embrace of openness is nowhere more apparent than at its Tumblr blog.

The fact that a national security agency is operating a public blog that’s more than just press releases and help wanted ads is very unusual. But underneath the talk of connecting with the public, there’s very little going on here that isn’t self-serving or fulfillment of legal obligations.

The Guardian notes, however, that a recent post finally did what no other post to date had done: acknowledge that the documents in question were forced out of the NSA’s hands.

Amie Stepanovich was doubly rewarded when she won her transparency lawsuit against the US government. Not only did Stepanovich, formerly a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, receive some of the surveillance documents she sued to obtain, but the office of the director of national intelligence credited her effort on its Tumblr.

Here’s the ODNI’s official release statement:

On Friday, the Attorney General through the Department of Justice, declassified and released 24 documents that were responsive to a portion of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. These one-page documents, titled “The Attorney General’s Report on the Use of Pen Registers and Trap and Trace Devices under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” are reports to the Congressional intelligence and judiciary committees that identify how many applications the U.S. Government filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) seeking authorization to use pen registers and/or trap and trace devices, and how many the FISC authorized, during specific time periods. The documents cover the time period from 2001 through 2012.

Will this sort of acknowledgement accompany future releases? It’s hard to say. While the short intro points out that the documents’ release was compelled, there’s nothing that indicates this sudden burst of honesty was. Did someone finally explain to Clapper’s office that “fostering public visibility” means identifying the impetus behind the document releases? Ultimately, as long as the documents are freed, those compelling the releases aren’t too concerned about the ODNI’s opaque (and lightly self-aggrandizing) statements.

“As far as we’re concerned, the government can explain the disclosures however they’d like to. The important fact is that most of this information should never have been secret in the first place. We’ll continue to press the government to disclose more,” said ACLU attorney Alexander Abdo.

“EFF’s number one priority is making sure this information is provided to the public, whether or not the government wants to give us credit for it,” said EFF lawyer Mark Rumold.

Hopefully, this is the process going forward. The NSA isn’t really making itself a part of the surveillance debate. It’s only fulfilling obligations. The public should be aware of how little it’s actually doing to increase visibility. Just using the blog-platform-du-jour isn’t enough. The fact is that the US government’s legal reps did all they could to block the release of these documents, which means the administration itself is just as complicit in the agency’s effort to avoid the debate.

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