Clayton Seymour, a 36-year-old IT specialist from Hilliard, Ohio, recently sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the NSA, curious as to whether any data about him was being collected.
What he received in response made his blood boil.
“I am a generally law abiding citizen with nothing I can think of that would require monitoring,” Seymour wrote to me, “but I wanted to know if I was having data collected about me and if so, what.”
So Seymour sent in an FOIA request. Weeks later, a letter from the NSA arrived explaining that he was not entitled to any information. “When I got the declined letter, I was furious,” he told me. “I feel betrayed.”
Seymour had decided to request his NSA file after coming across a recent post of mine instructing Americans on how to properly request such files from the FBI and NSA. A Navy vet and two-time Obama voter who supported the President’s platform of greater governmental transparency, Seymour was shocked by the letter he received.
The letter, which first acknowledges the media coverage surrounding its surveillance systems, quickly moves to justify why none of that data can be obtained by an American citizen in a standard FOIA request:
Seymour isn’t the only one who has recently had an FOIA request denied by the NSA – dozens of citizens have emailed me to say they’ve received a similar, if not identical, letter. And it’s clear from the exemption the NSA is using that every single American is having their FOIA requests similarly rejected.
It should be noted that there are legitimate exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, the first of which states that documents requested may be denied if they are “properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”
However, the central problem is this: Seymour’s letter from the NSA points to Executive Order 13526, signed by President Obama in 2009, as justification for the NSA’s FOIA exemption.
This order signed by Obama established a uniform system for classifying national security information, and stipulates that “information shall not be considered for classification unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security.”
This qualification appears in section 1.4 of the executive order, after which follow many categories of information which may be marked as classified. The category the NSA points to in justifying the classification of all its data is this:
(c) intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology
Meaning: the NSA is classifying every single bit of data it receives from ordinary American citizens based on the premise that it has been gathered covertly.
Meaning: the NSA’s advertised justification for not granting FOIA requests is to protect our country. However, the real justification is the NSA’s covert violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment right not to be subject to unwarranted searches and seizures (in this case of their personal, digital data).
The NSA, it seems, has classified every single piece of data on American citizens that it has seized and saved, even benign data culled from people like Seymour, who are no threat to U.S. national security.
“I believe in the concept of America,” Seymour told me. “[But] not its current execution.”
I sense the Founding Fathers would agree with him.
Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG