Journalists covering the National Security Agency know that getting documents from it using the Freedom of Information Act can be a long and arduous process. But I never expected the agency to tell me to wait four years to get some basic information ... about a children's coloring book.
Since at least 2005, the NSA has employed a cast of cartoon cats, squirrels, turtles, and other woodland creatures who like to encourage children to pursue the the politically important subject of cryptography and perhaps eventually a job in national security. Crypto Cat and crew espouse many virtues, but “transparency” and “timeliness,” do not appear to be among them.
In hopes of uncovering additional Crypto Cat and Decipher Dog adventures, I filed a FOIA request with the NSA asking for proposed graphic designs of a “Cryptokids Fun Book” released by the agency. Eight months after my initial request in April of last year, the NSA told me in late December that the case would not be assigned to a FOIA officer for at least another year, and that the completion of my request would likely take a total of three or four years.
The CryptoKids characters have popped up a few times over the last several years as new media organizations discovered the existence of a quite outdated-looking site and a series of actually trademarked characters (Slate™ the rabbit is featured in a photo that says “How Can I Work for the NSA?” on the CryptoKids home page) who just happen to love national security and cryptography.
In any case, I was wondering just how much money the NSA spent designing, printing, and distributing a physical hard copy of the coloring book, and so I requested “a budget and all proposed graphic designs for the ‘Cryptokids Fun Book’ coloring book and promotion materials.’” As far as national security requests go, this should be one of the simpler ones (the FBI took about half a year to respond to my request for designs and budgets regarding a spy thriller it created).
T.Top, the terrorism-fighting turtle.
I finally received a response in late December, which noted that my request is languishing in an “initial processing queue.”
Here’s what the NSA told me:
“Your case is in one of our initial processing queues pending assignment to a Case Office for further evaluation and/or document search if applicable. This means we still need to search for documents after it's assigned to a Case Officer. Due to the significant increase in FOIA requests, it is difficult estimate the completion date at this time. However, hope that your case may be assigned to a Case Officer within the next 12-18 months. Estimating an actual completion date for your case is also difficult, as it is entirely dependent on whether or not document [sic] are located, how many documents are found, and the complexity of any document located. The estimated completion date for those cases in the median range is 3-4 years. Please be advised that this estimate is subject to change.”
This response isn’t all surprising. After the initial Edward Snowden revelations in May of 2013, the NSA was flooded with FOIA requests. Between June of 2013 and April of 2014, the NSA received 5,200 FOIA requests, compared to just 800 over the same period between 2012 and 2013. At the end of 2014, there were 8,444 backlogged requests, according to data published on FOIA.gov.
The several-year response time does seem to be outside the realm of normal, however. According to data published on FOIA.gov, the average number of days for a response for a “simple” FOIA request in 2014 was 14 days (this seems low and out of touch with all agencies I’ve ever FOIA’ed), while “complex” requests were completed in an average of 425 days. For the record, federal statute requires that agencies respond to FOIA queries within 20 days of being filed, a deadline that, in my experience, is rarely if ever actually hit.
I am still holding out hope, however, that I can show you some rejected coloring book pages sometime before the end of the decade.