In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on potential abuse of Census Bureau records, the FOIA officer sent a letter saying “[t]he U.S. Census Bureau neither confirms nor denies the existence of any records responsive to your request.”
How very Tom Clancy-ian of them.
The response of “neither confirm nor deny” is typically reserved for the most tightly-kept national secrets, though it has been popping more frequently as of late, and among agencies you wouldn’t typically expect. Federal agencies are free to withhold documents for a long list of reasons, but unless they have very good reason, they must confirm that the documents exist and explain why they are withheld.
Now, what records might the Census Bureau have that are so secret and imperative to the national security that the FOIA officer literally cannot confirm nor deny their existence?
I filed a request in December 2015 asking for any record of other federal agencies asking the census bureau to share information. Specifically, I wanted to know whether the DEA, FBI, IRS, or US Marshals used Census Bureau information. Totally unbeknownst to me, Greg Otto had filed a similar request just a week earlier, asking whether the FBI, IRS, US Marshal, the Secret Service, Border Patrol, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement had used Census records.
Greg Otto received a response that there were “no responsive documents.”
If I may translate, that response likely means “no, there is no documentation indicating any of these agencies used Census Bureau records”.
The response to my request, similar to Greg’s but asking also whether the Drug Enforcement Administration used Census records, was “neither confirm nor deny,” with the added injury that even if they could confirm or deny, they would be exempt anyway.
Does this mean the DEA uses Census Bureau records? Well, no. It could mean anything. It could be a case of FOIA officers interpreting the rules differently. Maybe the Census Bureau FOIA officer moonlights as a secret agent and brought the wrong pen to work that day. Of course, perhaps the DEA really is up to something with the Census Bureau. It might be worth looking into.
Or, may I suggest, this is not at all a case of national security, but one of shoddy record keeping and institutional resistance to releasing public records? One expects the Census Bureau to be quite on top of their record-keeping, but you never know. And, really, this is the point. We don’t know why the Census Bureau would neither confirm nor deny such a basic request.
The mission of the Census Bureau is “to serve as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy. We honor privacy, protect confidentiality, share our expertise globally, and conduct our work openly.”
If I may, I would like to emphasize the final point.
Read the full denial letter on the request page, or embedded below.
Image via Wikimedia Commons