NSA says they can’t reveal if they Spied on You because it would ‘Help Our Enemies’ (Larson)

Jeff Larson writes at ProPublica

Shortly after the Guardian and Washington Post published their Verizon and PRISM stories, I filed a freedom of information request with the NSA seeking any personal data the agency has about me. I didn’t expect an answer, but yesterday I received a letter signed by Pamela Phillips, the Chief FOIA Officer at the agency (which really freaked out my wife when she picked up our mail).

The letter, a denial, includes what is known as a Glomar response — neither a confirmation nor a denial that the agency has my metadata. It also warns that any response would help “our adversaries”:


 Any positive or negative response on a request-by-request basis would allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.

Our adversaries are likely to evaluate all public responses related to these programs.

Were we to provide positive or negative responses to requests such as yours, our adversaries’ compilation of the information provided would reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

The letter helpfully states that there are “no assessable fees for the request.”

NSA Foia (PDF)NSA Foia (Text)

It also contains a paragraph about the ways in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has authorized the NSA to “acquire telephone metadata, such as the telephone numbers dialed and length of calls, but not the content of [sic] call or the names of the communicants.” The court was created in 1978, as we recently laid out in our surveillance timeline.

The letter also mentions section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government has cited to justify phone metadata collection.

So where does this leave me? According to Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney at the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, “If you wanted to see those records you would have to file a lawsuit.”

I reached out the NSA, to ask among other things, how many other requests about metadata they’ve received. They didn’t immediately respond.

Follow @thejefflarson

9 Responses

  1. Sadly, we’re in a downward spiral into an abyss of a military-intelligence led executive branch in all matters of security. What is lost in this process is our fundamental right to privacy. What is gained is a 4th branch of government, neither authorized, nor contemplated in the Constitution. This is what weak presidents with little to no knowledge of military and intelligence operations will get you…smh

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    Quite obviously this piece is a result of the dumbing down of US Education.

    We highly educated Europeans recognise the plot of many of Kafka’s novels.

    Of course he may already have Metamorphosed into a Giant Beetle.

  3. You guys know child are very sensative so we have to carefull to buy toys for them.

  4. Neither late KuK-monarchy writers nor beetles needed. Currently, conceiled ties between intelligence services, political class and economic sphere in Europe are not widely recognized in public.
    Our modern societies‘ crucial nervous system is the Internet. It stands to reason that this infrastructure needs to be secure and safe from threats.
    Now we let create a surveillance system which is led by a small group acting in their own interests. There is no sufficient and transparent public control nor satisfying bulk posting. This allready is and will further threaten emancipation, democratic development, power-free discurse.

    But still, WE let THEM bully the responsible, courageous ones.
    It is hard to say, because the term I want to refer is often misunderstood and often misused. But loosing a comfortable life, just the ability to walk on streets freely for giving us some bit of what is really going on – he is a damn hero!

    Dear NSA,
    *bomb; *taliban; *osama; *911; *drone; *yes_we_scan;

    • When the NSA wants detailed interactive maps of the relational networks of a suspect, it probably pulls up something like you will see in the link below.

      Muckety provides a host of interactive maps detailing relationships between individuals or entities — where the entity may be corporate, governmental or both.

      Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; have a gander:

      link to muckety.com

      Right click on a box or empty space to expand or choose different context menu options.

  5. The response seems excessively paranoid and fearful, as if revealing the extent of the data they have about you would actually help any other country.

    But it makes perfect sense if you figure out who they mean by ‘adversaries’. They mean YOU, the average US citizen.

    Once you realise that, the response makes perfect sense.

  6. I find it interesting that some people really doubt that the NSA would collect data on American citizens. This response just confirms it in my mind.

  7. “…you would have to file a lawsuit.”

    In Jabara vs. Kelley, 75 FRD 475(ED Mich 1977)the federal court, Judge Ralph Freeman, analyzed the “state secrets privelege” under the 1953 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds in the context of a FOIA enforcement action brought by the ACLU in the name of Abdeen Jabara, former defense counsel to Sirhan Sirhan and an executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The court held that such matters could be reviewed “in camera” (i.e. in the judge’s chambers) to protect national security.

    The court also held the “ongoing criminal investigation privilege” is not indefinite and expires after the elapsing of a reasonable amount of time, even if the investigation remains “open” in the government.

  8. They want to know more and more about us, and for us to know less and less about them. This is a direct and unsubtle attack upon the institution of democratic governance.

Comments are closed.