USA TODAY - Fueled by the Edward Snowden scandal, more Americans than ever are asking the NSA 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 National Security Agency with open-records requests, leading to a 988% increase in such inquiries. 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 fiscal year, which went from October to December, 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.
"It's a sign of disrespect to American citizens and the democratic process," he said. "I should have the right to know if I'm being surveyed if there's no criminal procedures in process."
Watts said he understands the need for secrecy when dealing with terrorism but thinks the NSA is violating constitutional rights by withholding information it might have on the American public. He also said the NSA's non-responses highlight problems with FOIA requests.
"We should not have to fill out forms and pay money for the government to be transparent," he said. "It's just a way for them to legally say no."
The spike in requests, a large backlog in responses and lack of information illustrates the limits of open-records requests and the determination of NSA to remain mum despite Snowden's historic leaks, experts say.
"People are legitimately troubled by the idea that the government is monitoring and collecting information about their e-mail traffic, phone calls and who knows what else," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "There is a growing sense of horror every time there is a new report about the data."
She said the NSA's failure to provide people with answers shows that the agency is burying its head in the sand despite Snowden's huge document dump. The tactic is successful, she said, because most people don't have the resources to fight for information through appeals or in court.
And even if people do fight, courts often side with intelligence agencies who say they want to protect national security, Weismann said.
Last fiscal year, the NSA spent close to $4.8 million processing FOIA requests, appeals and dealing with litigation in connection with the requests. However, Phillips said, because of sequester cuts the agency spent less money last fiscal year than in previous ones.
Some requests simply state that a person wants any and all information the NSA has about them. Others, however, go into detail and ask for specifics about how the NSA is run, how its surveillance program works as well as how the NSA has gone about collecting information.
While the NSA is hearing mostly from the public, journalists and civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are also digging, Phillips said.
Her 19-person staff is grappling to deal with the boom in requests, she said. More than 900 are still pending, although the NSA tries to get back to people in the 20 days required by law, she said.
Sometimes it can take months, even years, to get a response.
Even after a long wait, the agency for the most part is sharing nothing about the topic people want the most information about.
That frustrates Weismann.
"They can monitor in the most sophisticated way, and they say they are getting overwhelmed. I think that's facially ludicrous," she said.
Meanwhile, Phillips said her staff doesn't do searches on the majority of requests.
Workers don't look for any information when people request data on themselves because the NSA FOIA office doesn't have access to surveillance files, she said. She also explained that the agency doesn't confirm or deny if they have records on individuals because it doesn't want to tip off surveillance targets.
"We know we're dealing with frustrated people and people who are upset by what they're hearing," Phillips said. "But that's the only response that we're able to provide them on that topic."
Phillips estimates that her office will continue to get a lot of requests.
In 2006, the office saw a two-week spike of 500 or 800 requests with news of the NSA's terrorist surveillance program, she said. A year and half ago, there was a 200-request spike when a TV program mentioned a NSA surveillance program.
This time, Snowden's leaks have caused a months-long spike that seems only to be intensifying. The NSA has declassified some information and is working on releasing more, Phillips said.
"It just confirms that in the case of the NSA, leaks work," said Nate Jones, FOIA coordinator with the National Security Archive, a non-profit research institution. "They don't release anything through normal means. The only way the public really learns about them is through leaks."