I’m long overdue for a FOIA post, this one in particular. It was a FOIA/PA request to the TSA, who responded in a mere 13 months. I thought this was extraordinarily slow at the time, but perhaps not — this evening, I wrote to half a dozen agencies where I have outstanding FOIA requests, several of which have gone for more than a year without activity. Patience is indeed a virtue, especially for the casual FOIA requester.
I wrote to the TSA because I wanted to know whether my name appeared on any of their no-fly or watch lists. In my mind, this sort of thing should fall squarely under the umbrella of the Privacy Act of 1974. TSA, however, sees things differently. Here’s the request:
March 3rd, 2014
Transportation Security Administration, TSA-20, East Tower
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 20598-6020
Dear TSA FOIA Division,
This is a privacy act request, submitted according to your guidelines at
I am seeking the following records:
- A list of TSA watch or no-fly lists that my name appears on, if any.
- If my name does appear on a TSA watch or no-fly list, then I am also seeking the following information:
- The name, description, and purpose of the watch list
- The date my name was added to the watch list
- The reason my name was added to the watch list
I am willing to pay processing fees associated with this request, but please inform me if these processing fees will exceed $25.00 (twenty-five dollars).
I am happy to accept responses either in paper or electronic form (pdf documents are fine).
Thanks for your time and attention.
The chain of correspondence went like this.
- 3/3/2014. I send my original FOIA request to the TSA, using the FOIA address found on their website. The post office returns the letter as non-deliverable.
- 3/13/2014. I notice that I’ve addressed my letter to the “Transportation Security Agency”, rather than the “Transportation Security Administration”. I mail my request again, with “Transportation Security Administration” as the recipient.
- 3/26/2014. The post office returns my second letter as undeliverable.
- 3/28/2014. I use the TSA’s “Talk to TSA” comment form to request their FOIA mailing address. TSA advises me to send FOIA requests to the following address:
The Transportation Security Administration
Freedom of Information Act Office, TSA-20
11th Floor, East Tower
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 22202-4220
Note: Don’t use this address. It doesn’t work.
- 3/28/2014. I sent my FOIA request to the aforementioned address.
- Early 4/2014. The post office returns my third letter as undeliverable. At this point, I ask myself “are we entrusting the security of air travel to an agency that can’t keep its own mailing address straight?” You can answer that question yourself.
- 4/28/2014. Digging around DHS’s website, I found another FOIA address in http://www.dhs.gov/foia-contact-information. I send another letter to the address listed there.
- 5/12/2014. Fourth time’s the charm! TSA acknowledges my FOIA request, assigning it case number 2014-TSPA-00426. Because I requested records about myself, TSA asks me to fill out an affirmation document; essentially, a document to say that “yes, I am who I say I am”. I complete and remit their affirmation document.
- 7/6/2014. Having heard nothing for two months, I write to the TSA, asking about the status of my FOIA request.
- 7/17/2014. TSA responds to my status request. Due to a “growing backlog” TSA “cannot give an accurate estimation of when it will be released”. TSA offers to put me in touch with the analyst assigned to my case, if I don’t hear from them in the next few weeks.
- 11/8/2014. I send another letter to TSA, inquiring about the status of my FOIA request.
- 11/10/2014. TSA responds. Their FOIA office has a significant backlog, and they anticipate completion in approximately six months.
- 4/6/2014. TSA responds to my FOIA request. It’s a Glomar response: TSA will neither confirm nor deny the appearance of my name on any watch list.
Here’s the full text of TSA’s response:
Case Number: 2014-TSPA-00426
Dear Mr. Revilak:
This letter is in response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request dated April 28, 2014, seeking copies of any “TSA watch or no-fly lists that [your] name appears on” to include the name, description, and purpose of the watch list, and the date and reason your name was added to the watch list. Your request has been processed under the FOIA, 5 U.S.C. Sec. 552, and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C Sec 552a.
To the extent your request relates to records maintained by TSA, TSA can neither confirm nor deny whether an individual is on a Federal Watch List, because this information is derived from classified and sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information. This protects the operational counterterrorism and intelligence collection objectives of the Federal government, as well as the personal safety of those involved in counterterrorism investigations. Federal Watch Lists remain effective tools in the government’s counterterrorism and transportation security efforts because their contents are not disclosed.
The Federal Watch Lists include the No-Fly and Selectee Lists, which constitute “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) under the governing regulations, which may be found at 49 CFR Sec. 1520. SSI is expressly exempted from disclosure under 49 U.S.C. Sec. 114(r) and the implementing regulation at 49 CFR Sec. 1520.15(a).
TSA recognizes the frustration individuals may feel when they experience delays at airports due to TSA security procedures. To help alleviate delays, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has developed the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) to assist individuals who believe they have been incorrectly delayed, denied boarding, identified for additional screening, or have experienced difficulties when seeking entry into the United States.
In order to participate in the DHS TRIP, please submit a completed Traveler Inquiry Form (TIF) along with at least one government-issued photo identification, i.e. passport or driver’s license to DHS TRIP. DHS will review the information submitted and work with other Federal agencies to resolve individual concerns. If warranted, records will be modified and DHS will transmit your information to the airlines. Through this process, the airlines can complete the check-in process and issue boarding passes more expeditiously. Information about DHS TRIP is available on TSA’s public website, at http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/customer/redress/index.shtm. The TIF is available on DHS’ public website, at www.dhs.apv/trip. The TIF may be completed online or submitted to DHS by mail or via email at email@example.com.
TSA cannot ensure that your travel will always be delay free. Airline check-in procedures must still be followed and other security measures remain in place at the airport. For example, an individual may be selected for enhanced screening in order to resolve a walk-through metal detector alarm or because of random selection. You may still be required to check-in for flights at the airline ticket counter and be unable to print your boarding pass from a home computer or airport kiosk, because airline procedures for screening passengers against Federal Watch Lists vary. Please submit a completed and signed TIF along with the requested copies of identification documents to DHS via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to the following address:
Department of Homeland Security
Traveler Redress Inquiry Program
601 South 12th Street, TSA-901
Arlington. VA 20598-6901
Do not send original documents. Originals will not be returned. Please send an email to email@example.com if you have any questions concerning TRIP.
There are no fees associated with processing this request because the fees incurred do not exceed the minimum threshold necessary for charge.
In the event that you may wish to appeal this determination, an administrative appeal may be made in writing to Kimberly Walton, Assistant Administrator, Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement, Transportation Security Administration, 601 South 12 th Street, East Building, E7-121S, Arlington, VA 20598-6033. Your appeal must be submitted within 60 days from the date of this determination. It should contain your FOIA request number and, to the extent possible, the reasons why you believe the initial determination should be reversed. In addition, the envelope in which the appeal is mailed should be prominently marked “FOIA Appeal.” Please note that the Assistant Administrator’s determination of the appeal will be administratively final.
In short: sorry, we can’t give you that information because … you know … security theater. “Security Theater” is a genuinely appropriate term here. TSA brought Rapiscan full body scanners to airports all around the country. As a 2014 presentation from the Chaos Computer Conference shows, these devices have some serious limitations, particularly when it comes to detecting things like explosives (hint: it’s all in the bellybutton). TSA deployed these scanners in a way that violated their own rulemaking procedures, and were eventually forced to remove them from airports.
I was quite disappointed with the amount of effort it took to get my FOIA request through to TSA (i.e., TSA’s inability to provide a working FOIA address). This might be simple incompetence, or a tactic to discourage people from making public records requests. On the bright side, I now know which address works. If you’re thinking of sending TSA your own FOIA request (you should!), use the address listed on http://www.dhs.gov/foia-contact-information.