In the wake of the information about the NSA leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA has seen the volume of FOIA requests for the agency go through the roof. Brooke talks with Pamela Phillips, the chief of the NSA Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Office about how the agency is dealing with the sudden influx of requests, and what kinds of requests are rejected outright.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's now been over five months since the first bombshell report in June about the US government’s surveillance apparatus, based on leaks from the government contractor Edward Snowden. Over those months, the NSA has tried to assuage public anxiety by releasing information, including a heap of documents this week. But for many Americans, those releases just aren't enough. The Snowden leaks touched off a flood of personal requests for NSA documents that Pamela Phillips, the chief of the NSA Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Office, says her office can't keep up with. Apparently, the increase in FOIA requests from the first quarter of the fiscal year to the last is up over 800 percent.
PAMELA PHILLIPS: In fiscal year 2012, over 1800 requests and then for fiscal year 2013, we received ever 4300 FOIA requests, most of those coming in after the 6th of June.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have a 19-person staff, right?
PAMELA PHILLIPS: Yes, ma’am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How backed up are you?
PAMELA PHILLIPS: We are very backed up. We are doing our best to respond to all requesters within 20 days, as required by law, at least to let them know we've received the request, what their case number is, what we’re doing with the request. And for many of those, we can answer right off the bat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I got the impression that your answer to most of these requests was no.
PAMELA PHILLIPS: For those individuals who are looking for intelligence on themselves, the answer essentially is we can’t tell you whether we do or don't have intelligence information on you. This agency had had this position long before the media leaks over the summer. If we were to confirm or deny the existence of intelligence records, in response to any one of these individuals, we would have to do the same for all individuals making those similar requests. And that would allow, for instance, a terrorist contemplating an attack, they could file that type of a request to try to determine whether they were under surveillance. They would be able to determine whether they've successfully evaded detection. And that’s not an acceptable risk, when we’re looking at the lives and security of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what, theoretically, could you provide?
PAMELA PHILLIPS: If you look at the Office of Director of National Intelligence website, there’s been several significant releases recently, of our collection information regarding the programs themselves. Again, that’s information about how the programs work, the authorities, the oversight, but it's not information on specific targets or intelligence interest. Those are the things that we have to continue to be consistent and protect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, a recent USA Today article quotes Anne Weissmann, who is the chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.
PAMELA PHILLIPS: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And she said that people are legitimately troubled by the idea that the government is monitoring and collecting information about their email traffic, phone calls and who knows what else, and that, she said, there's a growing sense of horror every time there's a new report about this data. I mean, I know you don’t make the policy but you do concede that these programs represent, for many people, a serious breach of trust.
PAMELA PHILLIPS: I understand that individuals are concerned and want to understand what we’re doing. And the type of information that’s getting released is information that we’re hoping will raise awareness and encourage public dialogue about the programs. But, again, when it comes to what specific information we've collected on any specific individual, we still cannot confirm or deny that information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any possibility that those in charge might change their mind about the idea that letting people in on what's being collected about them will harm ongoing intelligence operations?
PAMELA PHILLIPS: I am not aware of anything that would be changing that position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, really, for people who are disturbed about this kind of intelligence gathering, you go to Congress and you say, my constituents want this done differently, if, in fact, enough of the public cares enough about it to do it. But they’re not going to be able to get anything about themselves from the NSA.
PAMELA PHILLIPS: Believe me, we understand that it's frustrating to people. My office prides itself on being responsive. This FOIA office has been very responsive to individuals in the past, on all kinds of requests for information. This is frustrating. It's frustrating for my staff that so many people are upset. And they’re upset with the FOIA office, even though we’re not the ones [LAUGHS] doing any of the mission.
We’re just trying to give the best response we can, within the time constraints that we have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pamela, thank you very much for making yourselves available..
PAMELA PHILLIPS: Oh, you're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pamela Phillips is the chief of the NSA Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act office.