John Greenwald at The Black Vault reports a curious change in the responsiveness of the National Security Agency to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding Intellipedia, a shared source within the intelligence community.
This online system gives the intelligence community a collaborative way to share information, insights, and theories across agencies, breaking down many of the barriers that restricted sharing of intel pre-9/11. Intellipedia consists of wikis that contain “Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information,” “Secret Information,” and “Sensitive But Unclassified Information.” Think of it as Wikipedia for spies.
For years, NSA had routinely released articles and category pages that reside in this digital resource. The Black Vault filed FOIA requests with NSA – which handles such requests for Intellipedia – to obtain glimpses into the unclassified collaborative thinking of the intelligence community.
Greenwald writes that in 2017, a successful FOIA appeal revealed that Intellipedia had more than 50,000 content pages in the unclassified section; more than 114,000 content pages in the “Secret” section; and more than 124,000 pages in the “Top Secret” section. It also included, he writes, “millions of additional pages within those three systems that includes other wiki pages, talk pages, and redirects, and finally, the three systems hold more than 600,000 uploaded files for download.”
He postulates that these numbers are likely much larger five years later, a reasonable guess considering the swelling numbers of classified documents across government.
The NSA, despite having released unclassified articles and pages for over a decade, is now issuing the all-too common Glomar response – neither confirming nor denying the existence of requested documents – and turning to statutory exemptions that it failed to invoke for over that ten years. What changed?
“This sets a concerning precedent,” Greenwald writes, “as it suggests that government agencies might have the ability to bypass the established FOIA exemptions and deny information requests based on internal policy decisions made on a whim.”
In our experience, the evolution of the Glomar response into an all-purpose stonewall is the rule. Intellipedia was a refreshing exception, perhaps a reflection of the creative impulse of the people behind it. Now it’s just like everything else in the government – even with unclassified information, it’s strictly need to know, old chum, and you don’t need to know.