Want records out of the NSA? You’d better act fast

“The records destruction schedule reads like a guide on how to hide potentially illegal or unethical practices”

Edited by JPat Brown

Last month the NSA released documents regarding their records management practices. Complete documents can found here.

While these documents reveal a wealth of information for persons who submit FOIA requests, they also call into question our ability to effectively oversee the NSA’s activities when their records keeping cycles are, in many circumstances, notably short. These shortened retention cycles may help explain why many documents which could otherwise reasonably be obtained simply cannot be found.

FOIA requesters may be most interested in the following:

  • Correspondence and files relating to grant administration are only kept for 2 years 

  • Correspondence, memoranda, and reports not received by policy-making or program oversight offices are kept for 3 years

  • internal briefings may only be kept for 1 year or less

  • operation status, performance, and management reports at “lower level offices” are only kept 3 years

  • interservice support agreements with other agencies are kept for 6 years

  • most email is deleted after 180 days

  • non-essential legal materials are reviewed for destruction every 5 years

  • many contracts and  documents relating to contract fulfillment are only kept for 6 years and 3 months

Some of the most important records regarding surveillance and reporting   are potentially only held for a few years. While many records are held permanently, to some extent the records destruction schedule reads like  a guide on how to hide potentially illegal or unethical practices.

For example:  

  • special projects, target, and crisis records not originated by chiefs or directorates are reviewed for destruction every 3 years

  • policy records at lower-level offices are destroyed within 10 years or less

  • employee grievance and disciplinary files are destroyed four years after case is closed

  • employee complaints are destroyed after 2 years

  • the “weapons and special programs file” is destroyed when no longer needed for operations

Most shockingly, SIGINT collection methods and tasking/targeting analysis records are reviewed for destruction every 5 years. Risk analysis reports regarding the review of illegal and unethical actions and annual reports are closed annually and destroyed after the next review cycle.

The takeaway: if you want insight into the activities of the NSA, be quick about it, because the documents may disappear faster than you’d expect.  

There is some irony in the NSA storing surveillance records  indefinitely when many of their own records are only available for a limited time.

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that simply asking for the listed file number will not yield results when requesting records referenced in these documents. According to Cindy Blacker at the NSA/CSS FOIA Requester Service Center, “The series number is not a physical label for a record, it is method to provide guidance. The record series numbers do not designate the office or organization that created the records, nor does it indicate where the document may be “today.” It is merely a designation based on what the document pertains to, in general, not where it’s filed.”

Read the full handbook embedded below:


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0