NSA can summarily reject requests for information

New authority is granted in recently signed bill

December 11, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The National Security Agency has won the authority to automatically turn down requests by citizens for records on how the spy agency eavesdrops on foreign countries.

The new power, part of legislation signed into law recently by President Bush, comes over the protest of government watchdog and civil rights groups, which worried that the eavesdropping agency was trying to cloak itself in another layer of secrecy.

The Fort Meade-based NSA has argued that the measure is simply a labor saver, freeing the agency from time-consuming record searches that detracted from the war on terror.

The provision, buried in the defense authorization act signed by the president Nov. 24, applies to requests filed by the public under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

In May, about 20 groups, from the American Library Association and Common Cause to the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, wrote Senate leaders to express concern about an original bill they felt gave NSA too much power.

Lawmakers reduced the scope of the measure and made clear that the public is still entitled to a full review of requests for the agency's millions of historical documents.

"The bill as passed is narrower and therefore less of a constraint on historians, concerned citizens, journalists and everyone else who uses FOIA," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

But some groups are still unhappy. "It's just another way of avoiding having to be responsive to the public," said Meredith Fuchs, of the National Security Archive, a research institute in Washington.

The security agency has stressed that it will not try to block access to historical and other non-sensitive records. "NSA remains committed to declassifying and publicly releasing as much information as possible," the agency said in a statement.

The measure covers only "operational files" - those that describe the tools, from satellites to wiretaps, used to intercept foreign phone calls, e-mails and other data. Under the new law, the NSA can instantly reject those requests without having to first search for and review the sought-after files.

The NSA has said the new law will have little impact on the public because it had almost always denied such requests on national security grounds anyway.

The CIA has had a similar authority for nearly two decades.

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