September 10, 2012 3:02PM

Testing “The Most Transparent Administration in History”

Barack Obama pledged to preside over the "most transparent administration in history," drawing an explicit contrast with the extreme secrecy of his predecessor. The Web site of the Department of Justice highlights that pledge, declaring its commitment to faithfully carry out a presidential directive encouraging such transparency, especially with regards to Freedom of Information Act requests, which are a vital tool for public accountability and informed democratic deliberation about government's activities. Earlier this summer, I decided I'd put that commitment to what should have been an easy test.

When Congress passed the controversial FISA Amendments Act of 2008, granting the NSA broad power to conduct sweeping electronic surveillance of Americans' international communications without individualized search warrants, it wisely required the Justice Department to issue semi-annual reports to Congress on the government's implementation of the law, evaluating compliance with the various rules, guidelines, and procedures in place to reduce the risk of civil liberties abuses. While these reports are classified, redacted versions of several previous installments have been released to the public in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. The most recent is from May of 2010, which means that by now there are three or four further reports on the government's use of its new spying powers which haven't been seen by the public.

Since the FAA is set to expire at the end of this year, and Congress is rapidly steamrolling toward reauthorizing the law for another five years, it seems like now would be a good time to let the public see the latest versions of these reports—with any specific references to operational details removed, of course. That's especially true given that we've recently learned that at least one ruling by the secretive FISA Court found some surveillance under the FAA had violated the Fourth Amendment. The latest reports, even in redacted form, might give us further insight into the scale and seriousness of this violation of Americans' constitutional rights. If, on the other hand, we find no mention of this in the official reports, it would be powerful evidence that Congress is getting a whitewashed account, and that internal oversight may not provide adequate protection for our privacy and liberties. Again, the government has already released several previous installments of this report—though the ACLU ultimately had to file a lawsuit before they agreed to do so—so there should be no doubt now as to whether these are documents they're obligated to release.

On June 26, therefore, I sent a FOIA request to the Justice Department asking for the release of the newer installments of this important report—specifically asking for expedited review, given the importance of informing the public about the use of the law before Congress renews it. On July 6, I got a response acknowledging that my request had been received and forwarded to the FOIA office of the DOJ's National Security Division. Federal law requires agencies to reply to these requests within 20 business days. I was still waiting when, a few days ago, a bill extending FAA spying authority was scheduled for consideration before the House of Representatives this week. I did, however, have a brief phone conversation with the NSD's FOIA officer confirming that she was evaluating my request, and that she understood clearly exactly which reports I was requesting.

This morning, September 10—more than two months after acknowledging receipt of my request for these three or four documents—I finally got a reply (my emphasis added), denying my request with the following unhelpful boilerplate:

The Office of Intelligence (OI) maintains operational files which consist of copies of all FISA applications, as well as requests for approval of various foreign intelligence and counterintelligence collection techniques such as physical searches.  We did not search these records in response to your request because the existence or nonexistence of such records on specific persons or organizations is properly classified under Executive Order 13526.  To confirm or deny the existence of such materials in each case would tend to reveal which persons or organizations are the subjects of such requests.  Accordingly, we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records in these files responsive to your request pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §552(b) (1).

This is, in a word, ridiculous. The "existence" of the reports I asked for is required by federal law. To the extent they contain passing references to any specific persons or organizations under investigation, these can easily be redacted, and have been redacted for previous public releases of the same documents. No reasonable person could believe that this reply is applicable to my request. If it had been sent immediately, you could at least put it down to sloppiness or inattention, but remember, it took them two months to send out a denial based on the preposterous claim that it is classified information whether a report mandated by federal statute even exists.

I can appeal—and of course, I intend to—but since that's likely to drag out the process for at least another month or two, the reports are likely to come too late to be relevant to the debate over FAA reauthorization. Try as I might, it's almost impossible for me to see this as a good faith response to my request. Instead, it looks an awful lot like a stalling tactic calculated to drag out the process until it's too late for the documents to be relevant to the debate over the FAA. I suppose this shouldn't be terribly surprising: DOJ's modus operandi, at least when it comes to anything controversial or potentially embarrassing to the government, seems to be to force FOIA requesters to waste time, energy, and money going to court even when it's painfully obvious there's no legitimate legal basis for sustaining a denial. That this is routine enough to be predictable, however, shouldn't make it any more acceptable in a democracy.