Despite the ability to monitor the Internet and cell phone activities of millions, the National Security Agency says it lacks the technology necessary to sift through its own employees’ personal email accounts, according to a new report.
The claim came in response from a Freedom of Information Act request sent by Justin Elliot, a reporter at Pro Publica seeking to identify to relationship between the NSA and the National Geographic Channel, which has aired what Pro Publica characterized as sympathetic documentaries on the secretive intelligence entity.
“There’s no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told Elliot, adding that the current system is “a little antiquated and archaic.”
In a trailer for the National Geographic Channel documentary entitled Inside the NSA: America’s Cyber Secrets, an NSA official described the agency as “energy central” and “the emergency room” to gain intelligence for American decision makers.
“Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s we had an adversary: it was the Soviet Union,” Dickie George, a former NSA technical director, says in the documentary. “They were very much like us: same intent, same motivation, same kind of capabilities and resources. There was a line in the sand, you didn’t go beyond that line. Today’s world is completely different.”
Elliot wrote that the NSA’s FOIA officer contacted him again days after the request to ask that he narrow it to a “person by person” approach for the Agency’s 30,000 employees rather than a broader request for National Geographic-related correspondence.
“It’s just baffling,” said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request.”
Pro Publica’s case is hardly unique. Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the true, shocking and indiscriminate scope of government surveillance, the agency has been inundated with requests from citizens demanding to know what, if any, of their own information has been collected.
Clayton Seymour, a 26-year-old IT specialist who lives in Ohio, told the Tikkun Daily, a progressive blog, that he submitted a FOIA request but was quickly denied under an exception to NSA’s FOIA policy, authorized by US President Barack Obama in 2009.
“Thus, your request is denied pursuant to the first exemption of the FOIA, which provides that the FOIA does not apply to matters that are specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign relations and are properly classified pursuant to such Executive Order,” stated the denial.
The order in question allows the NSA to refuse to disclose information if is collected covertly, a rule still in effect – and presumably relied upon – after the Snowden leak.
“I am a generally law abiding citizen with nothing I can think of that would require monitoring, but I wanted to know if I was having data collected about me and if so, what,” Seymour told Tikkun Daily. “When I got the declined letter, I was furious. I feel betrayed.”
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