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NSA transparency foiled by government's broken fax machines

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The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), to which the U.S. National Security Agency reports, currently has no working fax machine to process Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

FOIA requests are used by citizens to obtain nonclassified information about what Washington is up to. They are, in short, one of the most powerful tools for those who demand accountability from government agencies. 

Perhaps the most controversial of such agencies under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense (DoD)is the National Security Agency, whose massive Internet and telephone spying operations were revealed earlier this summer by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden

There are three ways to file a FOIA request with the OSD. You can send in the request by mail, fill out a form online, or send a fax. Naturally, one would assume that the branch of government engaged in the most sophisticated electronic surveillance in the world would have no trouble keeping these three pathways of transparency up and running. 

That, however, appears not to be the case. According to MuckRock, starting a couple weeks ago, FOIA requests faxed to the OSD have been getting kicked back as undeliverable. 

MuckRock followed up with the OSD to inquire about the kicked back FOIAs. Here was their OSD’s reply:

“IF” our IT department doesn’t have a replacement available, then they will need to order one. If that is the case, then it wouldn’t be ordered until the start of the new fiscal year (Oct 1). We would hope that it is back up sometime in October, but could extend into the beginning of November.

That’s a telling response. We are talking about an office with a $30 billion budget for maintenance and operations being unable to find the money to replace a new fax machine for months.

Of course, the slowness of massive bureaucratic institutions is nothing new. One only has to view the websites of the OSD or the NSA to realize that the most sophisticated well-funded digital armies in the world aren’t putting too much money into daily operational upkeep. Or, recall a report earlier this year from ProPublica that revealed how the NSA has no way to search its internal office emails.

The broader point, though, is that FOIA requests—and the government's ability to process them—are how these massive government agencies are held to (at least some degree) of transparency and accountability. While there is almost certainly no nefarious reason the OSD has no working fax machine, it’s telling that the department isn’t all that concerned about it—that it simply doesn’t care.

That might not have seemed so disturbing if the DoD didn’t oversee the NSA, which appears to be spying on—or at least “touching”—more of the Internet than Google.

The NSA splices directly into the telecom cables that provide phone and Internet service around the globe. Though it hasn’t been explicitly mentioned, it’s certainly reasonable to assume that along with touching this phone and Internet traffic, the NSA has the capability to capture messages sent via fax. And so, when you send a FOIA request to the DoD, the only office that potentially doesn’t receive it is the one designed to ensure your right to a transparent government.

Photo by Abhisek Sarda/Flickr