US & World

Want a file from the NSA? You can ask, but you might not get it

A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency (NSA) logo inside the Threat Operations Center inside the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, intelligence gathering operation Jan. 25, 2006.
A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency (NSA) logo inside the Threat Operations Center inside the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, intelligence gathering operation Jan. 25, 2006.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the agency's intelligence-gathering activities last summer, the NSA has been bombarded with requests for its records.

USA Today this week said the agency received more than 2,500 requests for records from July to September, compared to about 250 from January to March.

"The largest percentage of requests being received is from individuals wanting to know if NSA has collected their information as part of its intelligence mission," Pamela Phillips, the NSA's public liaison officer, tells NPR.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, anyone may ask for information like budgets, internal memos from government agencies or information collected about themselves.

Just because you ask, however, does not mean you shall receive.

"We understand that American citizens might expect NSA to disclose whether it has records on them," Phillips says. "Were we to confirm or deny the existence of intelligence records in response to any one individual ... we would need to do the same for all individuals making similar requests" — like terrorists, she says.

It's perfectly legal for agencies to deny requests for classified records or not even say whether they have them, says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

He says the silence could mean the agency has determined that the disclosure would cause damage to national security. And "signals intelligence" — like information on e-mail or phone surveillance — is considered among the most sensitive.

A productive response

In fact, he says, it's difficult to get any information from the NSA. Not only is a huge bulk of agency work classified — and therefore exempt from FOIA requests — but the NSA also allowed to exclude information pertaining to the functions and activities of the organization, "which is almost everything," Aftergood says.

"It is very hard, if not impossible, to force NSA to disclose information," he says.

So will the NSA actually agree to hand over anything? It turns out there are some success stories. There's no comprehensive list, but here are some recent examples:

The NSA also releases declassified material — millions of pages of documents each year, Aftergood says. But these are most often historical documents that are no longer deemed sensitive. And that process might take decades.

Relatively transparent

But as some of the NSA's recent disclosures show, the declassification process is speeding up. The agency has been under enormous pressure now to become more transparent, says Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director.

And even though there's so much secrecy, the NSA was already relatively responsive to the demand for transparency. It maintains a section of its own website for declassified material and collaborates with a Tumblr run by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"You go into it knowing that the NSA is a highly secretive agency. Its programs are highly classified," Leopold, with Al Jazeera America, says. "They still respond far better than agencies such as the FBI, the CIA."

Aid, the intelligence historian, agrees. "NSA, since 9/11, has been the only branch of the intelligence community that hasn't told me to go shut up and sit in the corner," he says. "You can always ask them for anything — just don't be surprised if they say no."