My quest to uncover secret Edward Snowden emails highlights the frustratingly long government-records process

The Guardian

It took the Defense Intelligence Agency nearly three years to confirm that former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden never used its email system.

On January 25, Business Insider received a final response to a Freedom of Information Act request asking for emails sent to and from addresses likely associated with Snowden at the DIA. The request was filed with the agency on May 29, 2014.

“I apologize for the delay in processing your request. DIA continues its efforts to eliminate the large backlog of pending FOIA requests,” wrote Alesia Williams, the chief FOIA officer at the DIA. “Despite a thorough search, no documents responsive to your request were found.”

The letter marked the end of a long, frustrating road of trying to gain a deeper understanding of Snowden’s career before he leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists and sought asylum in Russia, where he remains.

Business Insider filed three separate requests on May 29, 2014 for Snowden’s email records at the CIA, where he worked as an employee; the National Security Agency, where he worked as a government contractor; and the DIA, where he was a lecturer on counterintelligence, in an effort to learn whether he had, in fact, raised questions over the constitutionality of surveillance programs.

Though both the CIA and NSA took longer than the statutorily required 20-day period for fulfilling records requests, both agencies issued a final response a few months later. The CIA provided Business Insider a “Glomar response” on June 27, 2014, that neither confirmed nor denied such records. The NSA on July 1, 2014, partially denied to provide most of Snowden’s emails and provided one email it had already made public.

It took the DIA two years, eight months, and eight days to say it didn’t have any records on file.

Thomson Reuters

‘That search took them probably 10 seconds’

The long delay by the DIA highlights a common complaint about the FOIA process among journalists and others.

Though President Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 to reform FOIA, it did nothing to speed up the process of responding to requests. Some requesters, such as the author Monte Finkelstein, simply give up on trying to get records after waiting for years with nothing to show for it.

“This type of ridiculous delay in performing even basic searches is like a disease that has infected every FOIA office within the intelligence community,” said Brad Moss, a national-security attorney well-versed in FOIA law. Moss said the search at the DIA that ultimately turned up no records likely took 10 seconds.

“Too many agencies simply do not care about processing your requests in a timely fashion unless you have sued them and a federal judge is now standing over them asking what’s taking so long,” he said.

The people frustrated with FOIA requests are not only on the requesting side. Those fulfilling requests are seemingly overworked and underfunded, as a conversation Business Insider had with one FOIA officer made clear.

When Business Insider followed up on the status of a separate, pending request to the CIA in 2015, the FOIA officer said he could offer no time frame on when it would be fulfilled. He then launched into an unprompted rant about the process.

“If Congress would fund FOIA and give us the people for it – but they don’t,” the officer, who did not give his name, told Business Insider. “It’s difficult to do when you’re tasking directorates or whatever federal agency and they have another primary job. It’s not my primary job to do this. I’ve been doing this a long time and people have said to Congress, ‘You’re not going to fund this, you’re not going to give them money to do this, and you’re expecting them to get this in 20 working days.'”

You can read the DIA’s final response letter below: