NSA refuses to disclose what it’s disclosed

Longtime reporters who cover the NSA know that any time we ask the obstinate spy agency for information, we’re probably going to hit a brick wall. But who would have thought that trying to obtain information about information the agency has already given us would lead to the same wall?

That’s what happened when the Federation of American Scientists filed a FOIA request with the Defense Department (of which the NSA is a part) earlier this year seeking information about any authorized leaks of intelligence made to the media during the previous 12 months.

The response they got (.pdf) from the National Security Agency might well have come from Winston Smith’s Ministry of Truth.

“The document responsive to your request has been reviewed by this Agency as required by the FOIA and has been found to be currently and properly classified in accordance with Executive Order 13526,” the letter read. “The document is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

Last year, Congress amended the Intelligence Authorization Act to require government officials to notify lawmakers whenever they disclose national security secrets to the media as part of an “authorized” leak. Under Section 504 of the statute (.pdf), the government official responsible for authorizing the disclosure has to submit to congressional intelligence committees a timely report about the disclosure, if the information is classified at the time of the leak or was declassified for the purpose of making the leak, and if the information being disclosed was “made with the intent or knowledge that such information will be made publicly available.”

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