In August 2014, the Intercept published a story about ICREACH, a distributed query system developed by the NSA, and used by the FBI, CIA, DIA (defense intelligence agency), and DEA (drug enforcement agency). According to the article, ICREACH houses and provides access to over 850 billion metadata records.
Of course, one of my first reactions was “gosh, this would make a great FOIA request”, and I proceeded to write to every agency named in the Intercept article. Not every agency has gotten back to me, but the responses I’ve received so far have been illuminating.
Here’s the basic text of the request:
Dear FOIA officer:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of the following records:
- User manuals and training materials for the ICREACH query system.
If there are any fees for searching for, reviewing, or copying the records, please notify me before processing if the amount exceeds $25.00.
I am making this request for personal, non-commercial use.
If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific exemption you think justifies your refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available under the law.
I would prefer to receive responsive documents in electronic form (e.g., as .pdf files emailed to steve@…; or, on a CD mailed to the return address listed above).
Thanks you for your time and attention.
DIA responded first, on September 11 2014.
Dear Dr. Revilak:
This is an interim response to your August 30, 2014. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information concerning copies of user manuals and training materials for the ICREACH query system. We received your request on September 9, 2014 and assigned it case number 0465-2014. Please use this number in all future correspondence with us about this matter.
We will be unable to respond to your request within the FOIA’s 20 day statutory time period due to unusual circumstances. These unusual circumstances could be: (a) the need to search for and collect records from a facility geographically separated from this office; (b) the potential volume of records responsive to your request; and (c) the need for consultation with one or more other agencies which have substantial interest in either the determination or the subject matter of the records. For these reasons, your request has been placed in our queue and will be worked in the order the request was received. Our current administrative workload is in excess of 1,139 requests.
We regret that there is currently a substantial delay in processing requests and solicit your patience and understanding. We assure you that we will process your request as soon as possible. If you have any questions, please contact the DIA FOIA Requester Service Center at 301-394-5587.
Alesia Y. Williams
Chief, Freedom of Information Act Staff
Short summary: your request is number 1,139 in queue, and will be answered in the order received.
To DIA’s credit, they got back to me on September 30th
Dear Dr. Revilak:
This responds to your request under the Freedom of Information Act, dated August 30,2014. Therein you requested copies of user manual and training materials for the ICREACH query system. I apologize for the delay in processing your request. DIA continues its efforts to eliminate the large backlog of pending FOIA requests.
Based on the information contained in your request, the Defense Intelligence Agency searched its systems of records for responsive documents. Despite a thorough search, no documents responsive to your request were found.
If you believe this Agency should have records responsive to your request, you may exercise your right to appeal this action. Your appeal should include justification to support additional search efforts and must be postmarked no later than 60 days after the date of this letter. Please refer to case number FOIA-0465-2014 and address your appeal to:
Defense Intelligence Agency
ATTN: FAC2A1 (FOIA)
200 MacDill Blvd
Washington, D.C. 20340-5100
Alesia Y. Williams
Chief, Freedom of Information Act Staff
Short Summary: no responsive records found.
The US drug Enforcement Agency acknowledged my request on September 15, and delivered a final response on October 31st.
OCT 31 2014
Case Number: 14-00701-F
Subject: Requesting user manuals and training materials for the ICREACH query system, etc.
Dear Mr. Revile:
This letter responds to your Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act (FOI/PA) request dated August 30, 2014. addressed to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Unit (SARF), seeking access to information regarding the above subject.
To fulfill your request, SARF forwarded a copy of your request letter to the DEA Intelligence Division (IN), Office of Training (TR), as well as the Special Operations Division (SOD), to request a search of their records. As a result of their searches. SARF was informed that records pertaining to the ICREACH query system were not located. Thus, no records exist related to the subject of your request.
For your information, Congress excluded three discrete categories of law enforcement and national security records from the requirements of the FOIA. See 5 U.S.C. Sec 552(c) (2006 & Supp. IV 2010). This response is limited to those records that are subject to the requirements of the FOIA. This is a standard notification that is given to all our requesters and should not be taken as an indication that excluded records do, or do not, exist.
If you are not satisfied with the response to this request, you may administratively appeal by writing to the Director, Office of Information Policy, United States Department of Justice, Suite 11050, 1425 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001, or you may submit an appeal through OIP’S eFOIA portal at http://www.iustice.uov/oip/efoia-portal.html. Your appeal must be received within sixty (60) days from the date of this letter. If you submit your appeal by mail, both the letter and the envelope should be clearly marked “Freedom of Information Act Appeal.”
If you have any questions regarding this letter, you may contact the Government Information Specialist Jane Edmonds at 202-307-7603.
Katherine L. Myrick, Chief
Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Unit
FOI/Records Management Section
Short summary: we looked diligently, but found no responsive records.
The CIA’s response stood out from the others. Here’s what the CIA had to say:
12 September 2014
Dear Mr. Revilak:
This is a final response to your 30 August 2014 Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) request, received in the office of the Information and Privacy Coordinator on 9 September 2014, for a copy of the user manuals and training materials for the ICREACH query system.
The CIA is not the repository for records of other government agencies. The information you see would fall under the auspices of the National Security Agency. Please be aware the the CIA is not authorized to release records originated by other government agencies. Therefore, you should submit your FOIA request to the following addresses:
NSA FOIA Request Service Center/DJ4
9800 Savage Road, Suite 6248
Fort George G. Meade, MD 20755-6248
Information and Privacy Coordinator
Note how the CIA’s response differs from that of the other agencies. The CIA didn’t say “no responsive records”, they said “The information you seek falls under the auspices of the NSA; please submit your request to them at the following address”.
The NSA responded on October 27th.
FOIA Case: 79106
27 October 2014
Dear Mr. Revilak:
This responds to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of 30 August 2014, which was received by this office on 11 September 2014, for “Copies of: User manuals and training materials for the ICREACH query system.” Your letter has been assigned Case Number 79106. Please refer to this case number when contacting us about your request.
There is certain information relating to this processing about which the FOIA and applicable Department of Defense (DoD) and NSA/CSS regulations require we inform you. For purposes of this request and based on the information you provided in your letter, you are considered an “all other” requester. As such, you are allowed 2 hours of search and the duplication of 100 pages at no cost. There are no assessable fees for this request. Your request has been processed under the provisions of the FOIA.
Your request seeks records about alleged NSA intelligence activities and/or programs. However, your request appears to be premised on media reports that purport to describe documents originating from the NSA or that discuss alleged NSA intelligence activities and programs. Thus, we cannot acknowledge the existence or non-existence of specific documents purported to be originated by NSA, nor can we acknowledge the accuracy or inaccuracy of media reports about alleged NSA activities, to include any media publication of documents purported to be originated by NSA.
We have determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter in accordance with Executive Order 13526, as set forth in Subparagraph (c) of Section 1.4. Thus, your request is denied pursuant to the first exemption of the FOIA which provides that the FOIA does not apply to matters that are specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign relations and are, in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive Order.
In addition, this Agency is authorized by various statutes to protect certain information concerning its activities. The third exemption of the FOIA provides for the withholding of information specifically protected from disclosure by statute . Thus, your request is also denied because the fact of the existence or non-existence of the information is exempted from disclosure pursuant to the third exemption. The specific statutes applicable in this case are Title 18 U.S. Code 798 ; Title 50 U.S. Code 3024(i); and Section 6, Public Law 86-36 (50 U.S. Code 3605).
The Initial Denial Authority for NSA information is the Associate Director for Policy and Records, David J . Sherman . As your request is being denied, you are hereby advised of this Agency’s appeal procedures . Any person denied access to information may file an appeal to the NSA/CSS Freedom of Information Act Appeal Authority. The appeal must be postmarked no later than 60 calendar days of the date of the initial denial letter. The appeal shall be in writing addressed to the NSA/CSS FOIA Appeal Authority (DJ4), National Security Agency, 9800 Savage Road STE 6248 , Fort George G. Meade, MD 20755-6248. The appeal shall reference the adverse determination and shall contain, in sufficient detail and particularity, the grounds upon which the requester believes that the determination is unwarranted. The NSA/CSS FOIA Appeal Authority will endeavor to respond to the appeal within 20 working days after receipt, absent any unusual circumstances .
In order to correct the misinformation flowing from certain unauthorized disclosures of classified national security information, and to reassure the American public as to the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties, since June 6, 2013 , the Director of National Intelligence has declassified certain information pertaining to surveillance conducted by the NSA pursuant to law. I generally refer you to http://icontherccord.tumblr.com/tagged/declassified for information about declassified NSA activities and programs.
PAUL J. BLASKOWSKI
The NSA is correct: my FOIA request was influenced by media reports that did not originate from the NSA itself. The NSA is a large agency with a massive budget, little accountability to its legislative overseers, and even less accountability to the public. Quite honestly, I don’t believe they have any interest in being accountable. This is what makes said media reporting so compelling: information about the NSA that didn’t come from official NSA channels — that’s the good stuff! I will eagerly read it, and I suspect that others will too.
Consider some of the statues that NSA cited when denying my FOIA request. 50 USC 3024(i) exempts disclosure of “intelligence sources and methods”, and in asking NSA to disclose ICREACH manuals, I was clearly asking them to disclose a method.
Or consider 50 USC 3605, which states that “nothing in this chapter or any other law … shall be construed to require the disclosure of the organization or any function of the National Security Agency.” Our laws go beyond discouraging any transparency of NSA activities; they prohibit it outright.
All of this leads to a more fundamental question: how is the average person supposed to form opinions about our large intelligence agencies when these agencies are completely shrouded in secrecy? But perhaps the NSA has already given us the answer: “these programs are properly classified”. That is to say, “yes, you caught us, and no, we’re not going to talk about it”.