Showing posts with label FOIA request. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FOIA request. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 25


As the author of a mystery novel set in Afghanistan, I have often wondered if my internet wanderings have triggered alarms among analysts at the National Security Agency. And as reports emerged abut PRISM, I filed a request with the NSA’s convenient online form – inquiring about any files with my name or the title of my fourth book. 

I would not be surprised if the months of research for the novel, Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan, didn’t hit some nerves. The story is told from conflicting points of view of a rural and illiterate Afghan woman and an Army Ranger, with a plot focusing on extremism, varying interpretations of the Koran, weapons and war, conflict among members of a provincial reconstructions team, surveillance and more. So I headed to the National Security Agency’s web page on the Freedom of Information Act and found: “If you are seeking personal records on yourself (i.e., security, medical, personnel, applicant, etc.) or the reason why you were denied a position with this Agency, you will need to submit a PRIVACY ACT (PA) request instead of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.”

After filing a request, I stumbled on the advice from the National Security Archive for filing a FOIA request – and that advice could be a model for the National Security Agency as they go about the business of collecting and storing vast amounts of our personal phone and internet data.

The archive warns the public seeking FOIA requests that obtaining records can take a long time and be costly.   Many documents are already public available – and alternative sources should be checked first. “Overly broad requests are wasteful in time (yours, and the government’s),” the site notes. Appeals can be filed, and the public is advised to check in occasionally, but not harass the FOIA officers.  

Long delays can be expected and the site notes that “agencies that handle national security information have delays ranging from a few months to several years…. Delays are exacerbated by the fact that, for most agencies, FOIA is not an agency priority -- budget or otherwise.”

Finally, the archive advises:  "Don’t send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will delay the processing of yours –and others’ – requests."  My request was not frivolous, and the NSA and our political leaders need to know that a huge range of Americans, of all ages and backgrounds, are concerned.

A response arrived in less than two weeks, notifying me the request was denied.  I won't appeal, but Congress must review these programs, and eventually much of the methods and data collections will be declassified to truly determine what works and what doesn’t. Transparency could contribute to ongoing public support of the widespread surveillance while eliminating the many questions and concerns. 

To conduct blanket sweeps on internet and phone conversations or not?  Blanket sweeps are time consuming and may not be helpful and the analysts have many alternative avenues to investigate. Opponents of gun control in the United States insist that blanket applications of background checks are ineffective – and that’s for actual weapons.  And perhaps that justifies outlawing the most lethal weapons, military-style assault rifles, just as government prohibits bombs, tanks and other military armaments. 

Of course, blanket searches of any type may eliminate some bias of targeted searches and profiling, but not the labeling and stereotyping that may go on among thousands of analysts with minimal education and training who have access to our data.

And that’s the most troubling aspect of these programs. Hundreds of thousands of contractors with questionable backgrounds seem to have access to data, with so much potential for misuse and a lack of accountability among the managers who devised this unwieldy system.

Congress needs to get straight answers on the operations of the National Security Agency – determining what kind of data should be collected, the appropriate number of analysts who need access, and the proper level of training. The House of Representatives hearing on NSA surveillance was a start.

NSA headquarters at night courtesy of the NSA and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, June 11


I just filed my Privacy Act request with the National Security Agency. The NSA makes filing such requests very convenient - you can do so online, fax or mail.

Of course, filling out the form probably means that I'm connecting new dots for NSA analysts regarding my many old emails, addresses and phone numbers.

After researching a novel like Fear of Beauty - set in Afghanistan, told from conflicting points of view of a rural and illiterate Afghan woman and an Army Ranger, with a plot focusing on religious extremism, weapons and war, conflict among members of a provincial reconstructions team, surveillance and more - I'd be surprised to have not hit some nerve. The same goes with writing and researching material for YaleGlobal Online,  a job that entails reading reports of all types from around the globe, including the offerings of WikiLeaks, and posting a full range of opinions on numerous topics, with equal measure of praise and criticism for US and other country's methods in their global dealings.

And then there is today's Facebook posting that suggests the leadership of NSA should be held responsible for devising a system that extends access to so much personal data to hundreds of thousands of contract employees, at excessive wages, including a young man who dropped out of high school. The NSA's leaders have lost control of this system as was predicted back in 2006 when details first emerged. All responsible should be fired.

With luck, I'd also expect the analysts to quickly spot my long background in mystery writing and shelve specific concerns about me as a security risk.

One can only hope.

June 13: The Des Moines Register reiterates my reaction of two days ago that more than one person is responsible for this leak.  "It seems the leak is the result of the government’s slipshod management of classified national secrets.... the true scandal is inside the NSA and the CIA: Based on Snowden’s telling, the United States government entrusted a high school dropout who began his career at the National Security Agency as a security guard with some of the most sensitive national security secrets with potentially explosive international repercussions."