Wednesday, April 23, 2014
 

Response: NSA contracts stored in paper files, unsearchable, unindexed. And unaccountable.

Wish you were a little more organized? Have trouble finding that archived contract when you actually need it? Don't feel too bad: The National Security Agency has the same problem, claiming that its contract database is stored manually and impossible to search by topic, category, or even by vendor in most cases.

FOIA requests to the National Security Agency's FOIA office have jumped significantly since the Edward Snowden leaks and the majority of requesters have come away relatively empty handed, but getting information out of the NSA through FOIA isn't impossible as long as you know what to ask for and how to phrase it.

A request for contracts with the French security firm VUPEN, for example, was completed in just 10 days and netted 19 pages which were widely reported on.

Subsequent requests, however, focused on individual vendors and topics have not always seen as much success. For example, one targeted request for more NSA exploit contracts was rejected as follows:

A search for overly broad keywords such as "CNO" and "computer network attack" would be tantamount to conducting a manual search through thousands of folders and then reading each document in order to determine whether the document pertains to a contract.

In other words, the NSA is claiming that, for external contractors, large portions of its $10.8 billion budget are tracked primarily through paper indices not searchable even by relatively broad topic.

In addition, the agency's response appears to be saying that they don't even have a designated place to store paper copies of contracts, but place them in folders with other documents. This response comes on the tail of several other replies to contracts requests in which they claim that they are generally unable to search by "keyword". (For example, a request for contracts with Blue Coat Systems resulted in no responsive documents after a "keyword" search. Blue Coat is almost certainly an NSA contractor and may even be involved in XKeyscore as seen in a slide from a presentation leaked by Edward Snowden.

This inability to find basic contract information is a surprising claim from an agency that prides itself on its ability to search through keywords to connect the dots within vast stores of data.

It also raises questions about how the NSA tracks expenses and the fulfillment of their own contracts. How do they keep track of their activities if they don't have an electronic contracts database? How do they, as a complex organization, determine budgetary needs if they cannot easily track their own spending? How do they measure the performance of vendor contracts, if as they claim, the contracts are shuffled to some paper file that may not see the light of day unless someone requests it through a FOIA request?

Requests have been filed seeking clarification regarding how the NSA processes their contracts, including requests for manuals and other documentation regarding the administrative process and the maintenance of their contracts database. There have also been new requests filed for notes processing of previous contracts requests to better understand why some result in responsive documents,and others are processed as unsuccessful "key word" requests.

One possible conclusion is that these difficulties are intentional; by handling their contracts in this piecemeal manner, they obfuscate their operations, reduce transparency and make it more difficult for outsiders to form a complete picture of their operations and expenditure. "Outsiders" may include voters, journalists and the elected representatives who make decisions on funding.

Want to help dig into the NSA's doings? Join Project Spylighter and file your own requests, compare notes, and share what you find.

Image via FEMA.

 
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