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You remember the NSA, right? Big, shadowy agency recording everything you say, write or do online or on your phone? It was in all the papers about four and a half scandals ago.
To refresh your memory, the National Security Agency is basically the intelligence nerve center for planet earth. The 30,000-person organization is working on a nearly $1 billion supercomputing center at its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, while they finish their new $1.2 billion cybersecurity data center in Camp Williams, Utah.
All this information technology has made the NSA a supercomputing powerhouse, allowing it to scan billions of digital messages for those few communiqués deemed to be a threat. Forget finding a needle in a haystack, NSA computers are designed to find a teardrop in the ocean.
Surely such a data-mining colossus would have no problem searching its own employees' email to answer a freedom of information request, right?
(That question was rhetorical since the headline gave the answer. Probably should have put a “spoiler alert” up there.)
ProPublica, an independent journalism non-profit, asked the NSA for emails between their employees and the National Geographic Channel. The network had aired a very positive documentary on the agency and ProPublica wanted to make sure there was no funny business.
A few days later, NSA FOIA officer Cindy Blacker said they — get this — didn’t have the technology. “There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up,” Blacker said, adding that the system was “a little antiquated and archaic.”
After spending untold billions on the NSA’s digital supercomputers, their lowly little email service isn’t searchable? AOL lets you search an inbox, for crying out loud. The majority of companies large and small can bulk-search their email since it’s often essential for legal purposes.
“It’s just baffling,” says Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for 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.”
Federal agencies’ public records offices are often underfunded, according to Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at University of Maryland and a longtime observer of FOIA issues.
But, Daglish says, “If anybody is going to have the money to engage in evaluation of digital information, it’s the NSA for heaven’s sake.”
There have been moves on Capitol Hill to end the NSA's authority under the Patriot Act, preventing them from collecting records unless an individual is under investigation.
The White House is so worried that it released a late-night statement to "oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community's counterterrorism tools." It added, "this blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process."
The NSA is, by definition, a secretive agency. But as part of the federal government they are subject to FOIA laws just like every other office. As the public and lawmakers grow more concerned about PRISM and other controversial initiatives, the NSA and the rest of the Obama administration must not interfere with proper oversight.
And before we hand them another billion-dollar data center, maybe they can upgrade their email service from America Online.
Follow Jon on Twitter at @ExJon.