Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between someone being stupid and being evil. According to Justin Elliott of ProPublica, writing in the Huffington Post, the NSA
responded to his freedom of information request with a stonewall.
Elliott said he was asking for emails between NSA employees and the National Geographic Channel within a certain time period so he could research how the NSA handles public relations. He said that NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told him: "There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” and added (probably with a nervous laugh) that the NSA’s email
system is “a little antiquated and archaic”.
He said that she further told him that the Freedom Of Information Office was only able to search emails person by person--which is not very efficient because the agency has about 30,000 employees.
"Those? Why, we don't even know what they do. We just like the pretty lights."
And this is where we get back to the part about stupid versus evil. It is possible that the NSA’s own email system was put together by incompetent people back in the dark ages. It is possible that Ms. Blacker, whose job it is to cull data for FOIA requests after all, is just a clueless rube. (It is even possible that the NSA budget item related to office email services and computers is far too small to provide adequate equipment and software--which isn’t uncommon among government agencies.)
However, it is far more likely that the NSA just doesn’t want anyone snooping on its emails and is lying, which is evil. The idea that an agency that has and continues to amass and process mountains of data on U.S. citizens through its PRISM
spying program and associated FISA
shadow court can’t look through a few of its own emails is ludicrous. It’s basically the “What’s a truck?” feigned ignorance tactic, a la Fat Tony
in The Simpsons
It’s not like requesting emails is a new and baffling thing; it’s incredibly common, in fact, as part of legal investigations and internal matters. There’s essentially no way that the NSA can’t fulfill requests like the one Elliott made; however, if the NSA doesn’t want to comply, telling its FOIA office that it’s simply not capable of turning over email data is an easier way of saying that it just doesn’t feel like following the rules.