When it comes to the conversion of the US into a totalitarian state, few things are quite as symbolic as the construction of the NSA's Bluffdale, Utah Data Canter, which was revealed last year by Wired, yet which did not get much prominence until June's revelations by Edward Snowden. Costing billions in taxpayer money, the facility is simply the largest hard disk ever built, designed to store every current and future electronic communication, both foreign and domestic, to be made available at a moment's notice following the "permission" of the secret FISA court. Which is why one would think that if there is one thing the NSA would excel in (and once can certainly not blame the NSA for being budget-friendly - recall that the The Pentagon has requested $4.7 billion for “cyberspace operations,” even as the budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies could fall by $4.4 billion) is being able to identify and isolate any particular signal among a veritable mountain of noise. One would be very wrong.
Last week ProPublica filed a FOIA request with the NSA seeking emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel after the TV station aired a friendly documentary on the NSA. ProPublica had sought to glean a better understanding of the agency's public-relations efforts. Yet instead of getting the usual dump of page after page of redacted and useless material, thus closing the door on yet another attempt at transparency, the NSA had a very peculiar response.
To wit: "There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week. The system is “a little antiquated and archaic," she added.
ProPublica's bafflement is understandable:
I reached out to the NSA press office seeking more information but got no response. It’s actually common for large corporations to do bulk searches of their employees email as part of internal investigations or legal discovery.
“It’s just baffling,” says Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request.”
Federal agencies’ public records offices are often underfunded, according to Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at University of Maryland and a longtime observer of FOIA issues.
But, Daglish says, “If anybody is going to have the money to engage in evaluation of digital information, it’s the NSA for heaven’s sake.
So getting to the bottom: here we have the world's most sophisticated and best-funded code breakers, hackers, and noise-to-signal analysts, people who can identify and record one cell conversation among tens of millions based on the mere mention of a select keyword, and whose job is to ferret through billions of discrete data points, and their excuse for not being able to provide a FOIA response is that they don't have access to an internal search function?
Maybe the sequester really is destroying the big government's ambitions for a Big Brother state after all?