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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Jake, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 4:38pm

    In the CIA's defence, there's a real possibility that their IT capabilities really do just suck that badly.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 4:44pm

    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).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 4:59pm

    Re: Makes sense

    or they could learn how it works and do it properly...
    but then I expect an agency task with difficult things to have a clue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 5:17pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Zem, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 5:20pm

    Transparency clearly means that when you look for the open government you can't see it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 5:35pm

    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 harderto 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!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    IWPCHI, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 5:40pm

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

    ... how to make .pdfs. Their "Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room" at http://www.foia.cia.gov/ offers up (perhaps exclusively) .pdfs for download. We have been downloading them for the past week from this section of their site right here: http://www.foia.cia.gov/collection/nazi-war-crimes-declassification-act

    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

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 5:56pm

    Re:

    Not if people have already used their system to do what they're saying their system sucks too badly for anyone to be able to do...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Avatar, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 6:11pm

    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...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Arioch (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 6:59pm

    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

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 7:12pm

    which means the government will once again appear in court to defend its refusal to follow its own laws.


    Seems like there must be flu epidemic involving this business of the government defending itself over refusal, as often as it is happening.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    icon
    madasahatter (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 7:14pm

    CIA = Pure BS

    Redacting could be done electronically, probably fairly easily actually. But the CIA wants someone to actual read each document and has decided the readers may get sloppy reading it on a screen. I would suspect most people would get sloppy because of boredom whether they were doing it electronically or on a hard copy.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2014 @ 7:56pm

    First time I have ever defended these clowns, but they are right. It's far too easy to accidentally leak information if you just alter the original softcopy. Printing, hand-blanking and rescanning is the only way to be sure that a nontech-savvy worker won't miss embedded data.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    Eldakka (profile), Mar 18th, 2014 @ 10:19pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 12:26am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    btrussell (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 12:35am

    Re: Re: Re: Makes sense

    Is there an "undo" on that sharpie? Or do they magically marker with no human input?

    If these same people make fewer mistakes with pen and paper, why are they using computers at all?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 3:32am

    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."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 5:55am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 6:48am

    Has their sole and only fax machine (at the FOIA receiving place) been replaced ? This time by at least 9 other new ones? heh

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Zedadiah, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 7:36am

    Re:

    Except the FOIA requester claims--plausibly--that he knows the records can be reproduced electronically very easily. It's probably just a matter of using a free "PDF printer".

    This is clearly a government defending itself like HAL the computer in the movie.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    fgoodwin (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 7:48am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 8:28am

    Re: Re: Re: Makes sense

    oh, another day, another authoritarian suckup...

    sure, because printing out many pages and editing them with a 'sharpie' is SO much less prone to 'mistakes' than doing it RIGHT in the electronic version...

    urine idjit, stop making excuses for fascists...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 8:32am

    Re:

    bullshit: you ARE creating MORE opportunity for mistakes:
    1. black out the wrong line
    2. skip a page in the pile of 10 000 pages...
    etc, etc, etc...

    you make MORE steps, you create MORE opportunities for fuckups: YOU ARE INCREASING THE ODDS OF MISTAKES, NOT DECREASING THEM...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 8:35am

    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,
    or,
    B. a non-descript pile of thousands of pages which ANYONE could walk off with and no one would be the wiser...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 19th, 2014 @ 11:33am

    Re:

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

    How is it more complicated than that? I don't see how your experience supports that assertion, so I'm assuming that I'm failing to understand something.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    GEMont, Mar 19th, 2014 @ 4:07pm

    Perhaps the choice of handle "fgoodwin" might explain the poster's attempt to support the Fed's lie.

    Fascism is after all, Naziism.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
Advertisement
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Chat
Techdirt Reading List
Advertisement
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Support Techdirt - Get Great Stuff!

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.