Spike in requests has overwhelmed FOIA staff

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Fueled by the Edward Snowden scandal, more Americans than ever are asking the National Security Agency if their personal life is being spied on.

And the NSA has a very direct answer for them: Tough luck, we’re not telling you.

Americans are inundating the NSA with open-records requests, leading to an 888% increase in such inquiries in the past fiscal year. Anyone asking is getting a standard pre-written letter saying the NSA can neither confirm nor deny that any information has been gathered.

“This was the largest spike we’ve ever had,” said Pamela Phillips, the chief of the NSA Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Office, which handles all records requests to the agency. “We’ve had requests from individuals who want any records we have on their phone calls, their phone numbers, their e-mail addresses, their IP addresses, anything like that.”

News reports of the NSA’s surveillance program motivates most inquirers, she said.

During the first quarter of the NSA’s last fiscal year, which went from October to December 2012, it received 257 open-records requests. The next quarter, it received 241. However, on June 6, at the end of NSA’s third fiscal quarter, news of Snowden’s leaks hit the press, and the agency got 1,302 requests.

In the next three months, the NSA received 2,538 requests. The spike has continued into the fall months and has overwhelmed her staff, Phillips said.

Joel Watts, 35, of Charleston, W.Va., put in an open-records request in June, days after learning about Snowden’s leaks and the NSA’s surveillance tactics. Some three weeks later, he received a letter telling him the agency wouldn’t say if they had collected information on the health and safety administrator.

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