Department of Homeland Security Horrible Service

The DHS and the Freedom From Information Act

posted 10/25/05, updated 01/18/06

Sometimes, it seems, the world is really conspiring against you.

I've recounted elsewhere my less than totally rewarding experiences trying to get useful responses to Freedom of Information Act / FOIA requests at the FBI. They respond - albeit pretty uselessly - to requests in a reasonable amount of time, which is more than can be said for the Coast Guard, for instance.

The irritating behaviour of the FBI, however, pales in comparison with my experiences with the Department of Homeland Security. First, some history...

In mid-January of 2005, a small number of the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Operations Morning Briefs were found to be publicly viewable on the web. Marked "For Official Use Only", these short daily (except weekends) reports are a fascinating insight into the activities of those who are supposed to be protecting America. They're intended for law enforcement, and were never meant to be seen by the public. Most of the incidents described in them don't even get picked up by the media. DHS caught on, and within a few days these documents disappeared from the web, though they've been archived elsewhere - just check your favorite search engine for "HSOMB".

In the dozen or so examples available, there was a fair amount of interesting stuff, though nothing that had happened in my area. Curious just what was going on in my neck of the woods that I hadn't heard about, on 24 January I sent a FOIA request to DHS's Directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection - IAIP - the fine folks who compile the HSOMB. Alphabet soup, I know... Anyhow, I requested - I've still got a copy of the letter here - "all Homeland Security Operations Morning Briefs, or relevant excerpted entries therein, making mention of the states of Minnesota, Iowa, or Wisconsin, since 01 January 2004."

Pretty straightforward, right? Everything about MN, IA, or WI, from the beginning of 2004 thru whenever in 2005 they process the request. Should have been a no-brainer. Three keyword searches thru the HSOMBs - they're computer files, of course - discard everything before 01/01/2004, redact as necessary, and Bob's your uncle. Since there are no border crossings in MN, IA, or WI, and the vast majority of HSOMB entries are suspicious individuals arrested or turned back at the border, the number of relevant entries should be minimal.

In March of this year, I received two acknowledgements from DHS to my request, assigning it a case number and correctly quoting the wording of my request.

That was the last I heard of them until October, when I got a large envelope in the mail, bearing the DHS crest. I eagerly opened it, to discover a two-page cover letter and 93 numbered pages of Homeland Security Operations Morning Briefs. Wow, I thought, 93 pages? That's a lot for this quiet little part of the heartland. Setting the cover letter aside, I began reading, and was immediately confused. The first few pages had no mention whatsoever of Minnesota, or Iowa, or Wisconsin. Checking the date, I saw that they were for 03 January 2005. A quick read thru all 93 pages showed it to be every HSOMB from the beginning of January, 2005, to 04 March 2005, when DHS began processing my request. Just to be cheeky, they included two copies of several pages, several blank (not redacted, just... blank) pages, and a handful of incomplete "draft" copies of daily HSOMBs that were essentially identical to that day's "real" HSOMB.

Perplexed, I flipped back to the cover letter and was, shall we say, not amused to see:
This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request dated January 24, 2005 to the Department of Homeland Security for copies of Homeland Security Operations Center Morning Briefs from January 1, 2005 to present...

What?! I ran off to the filing cabinet, and pulled up not only a copy of my original request, but their two acknowledgements of receipt of the request. All noted "01 January 2004", not 2005. Did I make a second request somewhere along the way, I wondered? Nope, all three letters referred to the same DHS request number, IAIP05F021.

Interestingly, in addition to their numbering from 1 to 93, some of the pages they sent along are also numbered in the 300's, those numbers being struck thru. It appears to me that, in an effort to clear up some of their backlog, and in the hopes that after eight months I'd be happy with something, even if it wasn't what I'd requested, they pulled a chunk of someone else's request - for all HSOMBs, perhaps - photocopied them and sent them to me. This is something of a standard operating procedure, as it allows them to fulfil a request without having to once again review and redact documents they've already reviewed. Usually, though, they manage to, um, respond with documents that are actually responsive to one's request.

I don't know if they just screwed up, or if someone was just so eager to make a dent in the backlog of pending requests that they sent me a pile of stuff hoping I'd be happy and go away, gambling on my not having a copy of my request, nor having saved their letters correctly quoting the request, and accepting that I'd goofed and asked for the wrong dates. If the original 300 numbering was indicative, then the other request they copied part of for me most likely included all of calendar year 2004 as well, which would have included any and all documents actually responsive to my request. Hell, I'd be happy with everything for 2004, even if I had to pay for it, as it'd contain the information I'm interested in... unlike what I was given, damnit.

Well, it turns out that the DHS moves slowly in all things. A week after I tried to get in touch with them about their clerical error - and a couple days after I mailed off an FOIA appeal - I finally heard back from them. The conversation didn't start off on the best foot, with the DHS employee being a tad bit confrontational. "You're unhappy with our response to your request?", or words to that effect, began a lengthy explanation of how my request was not acceptable to DHS as-is; it was not "reasonable", he explained, for them to segregate only those HSOMBs responsive to my request, so they had to send me everything. So much for the usual advice about making narrow, detailed request - what's known in the parlance as a "perfected request"!

I, for my part, said that I completely understood that they couldn't narrow my request as intended... but was there a reason they changed the request dates? I knew from the accidentally-released that there were HSOMBs in December of 2004, and strongly suspected from the dual numbering on pages released to me that there were HSOMBs well prior to that, so it's not as if I were asking for documents that didn't exist!

It's never a good thing when a government employee of any sort says "oops". I don't think this one actually said "oops"; I believe his exact words were "my goodness".

I imagine he was expecting to have to deal with some cranky, unreasonable person with unrealistic complaints... but once we established that it was, as they say, "their bad", he was much more pleasant. He confirmed that, as I'd guessed, the original ninety-three pages I received were excerpted from another individual's request covering September '04 into the summer of '05. He apologized for the mixup, and said they'd send me the already-reviewed documents for September thru December, and would review January thru August when possible...

I figured it'd be another ten months before I heard from them again, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to get some, well, most of the HSOMBs for September thru December just a week or two later. One perplexing question was raised, though; almost one hundred pages were withheld, and referred to their originating agency or agencies for review. It's the Homeland Security Operations Morning Brief, created by the Homeland Security Operations Center of the Department of Homeland Security. Why does their daily brief contain - for a four month period - scores of pages that apparently originated outside DHS? My guess is the errant pages have to do with Presidential, and Presidential-candidate, security through the elections, and as such originated with the Secret Service, who are part of the Treasury Department, not a part of Homeland Security. We'll see, though... maybe. Considering how many visits the two candidates made to Minnesota and Wisconsin in the months leading up to the election, there could well be some tidbits of regional interest. Whether they survive redaction hell is another matter entirely...

In January 2006, almost exactly a year after my original request, and some four months after I'd last heard from anyone at DHS, I received yet another envelope from them. Wonder of wonders, this contained a two-page cover-letter, an internal email message between two DHS employees, and - numbered in purple ink - eight pages, titled "HSOMB Articles of 2004 (Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin). After a year, and some two-hundred nonresponsive pages released to me because my quite specific request was "not reasonable", they did what they should, and could, have done in the beginning - three searches, a few quick redactions, and the release of eight pages. The mind boggles, it really does. Ah, well; DHS, like most deities, moves in mysterious ways.

My thoughts on Homeland Security in the Heartland, one of the products of the responsive and non-responsive documents released to me, can be read here.

Oh, and you folks from MITRE, who are monitoring this page for the government? Be sure to check out my latest exasperating experiences with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and add it to your list of pages to spider again and again and again... Thanks...


All Contents of BUGGRIT.COM are (C) 2002 - 2006 M. Gilday. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the owner.