TSA sends our FOIA request into a black hole

We learned yesterday from the U.S Postal Service that the TSA has been assigned a new zip code, 20598 (or at least so we were told on the phone by the USPS Customer Affairs department — we have no way to verify whether it’s true, or what the “correct” zip code should be), replacing the former 22202, and has instructed the USPS that they will not accept delivery of anything addressed to zip code 22202.  But the TSA still lists 22202 as the zip code for FOIA requests on their Web site, and they have yet to publish a new Federal Register notice officially designating a new FOIA request address.

Our most recent request was under FOIA.  But the same address is officially designated for TSA Privacy Act requests on the TSA website and in numerous System of Records Notices (SORNs), and we assume that Privacy Act requests have the same problems.

A FOIA request we sent (by Express Mail, with a request for expedited processing) 12 days ago has gone into a black hole: It hasn’t been returned to us as the sender, but there’s no record of it being delivered. Nor is there any written record of the TSA refusing to accept it or directing the USPS not to attempt to deliver it.

We haven’t been able to find out how long this has been going on, or how many sacks (truckloads?) of mail and how many tens or hundreds of FOIA requests may have been similarly dealt with.

It doesn’t help that the TSA FOIA office doesn’t answer their phone, doesn’t return voicemail messages, and doesn’t respond to e-mail. So the only way to document a request or prove that it has been “constructively denied” if there is no response within the statutory deadline is to get a signed return receipt for a postal request letter. If the TSA won’t sign for a delivery, that effectively precludes appeal or litigation of the constructive denial.

It seems a fairly serious FOIA violation to forward FOIA requests to a black hole, or refuse to accept delivery, when they are sent to the address in the most recent Federal Register FOIA notice for the agency.

After we phoned the DHS’s central FOIA office, they contacted the TSA’s FOIA office, who finally called us back (we’ve been leaving voicemail messages for them daily for a week) to say that they had received and docketed our request, presumably the copy sent by e-mail, eight days after we sent it.

Where was our e-mail for those eight days, and where’s our Express Mail letter?  We have no idea.  Will they update their Web site, and if so, when? We have no idea.  Will they publish a new FOIA notice, a new Privacy Act notice, and a new System of Records Notice (SORN) for each of their records systems in the Federal Register, and if so, when?  We have no idea.  In the meantime, have they rescinded their instructions to the postal service and resumed accepting deliveries to the address in the current Federal Register notice? We have no idea.  Perhaps most importantly, what’s happened to all the requests that have already come in (and gone into this black hole), and what will be done about them or to alert requesters that they need to resend them?  We have no idea.

There’s still no trace of our Express Mail envelope.  Even the folks at our local post office seem concerned, and have referred the matter of the TSA postal black hole and our missing mail to the Postal Inspector’s office for investigation.

The same address and zip code are in the most recent “System of Records Notice”  for each of the TSA’s databases of personal information, as published in the Federal Register pursuant to the Privacy Act.  We presume that, with the change of zip codes, those notices are also invalid.  Maintaining a system of records without a valid SORN, including an address at which requests for access are actually accepted, is a criminal violation of the Privacy Act on the part of the responsible agency officials.  As of today, and until new SORNs are published in the Federal Register, each TSA official responsible for maintenance of a system of records of personal information is engaged in an ongoing crime.

Documents (including follow-ups, in chronological order):

17 Responses to “TSA sends our FOIA request into a black hole”

  1. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » “Do I have the right to refuse this search?” Says:

    [...] article didn’t get much of an answer — which is, of course, disturbing in itself. Our FOIA request for the TSA’s complete screening manual and Standard Operating Procedures for airport [...]

  2. Joe Driscoll Says:

    I just had a letter returned that had the zip code 22202 on it. The Post Office said it could not be forwarded.

    It seems to be, in trying to find the TSA mailing address, the TSA prefers you send an e-mail. I think that is a bigger Black Hole. I think the TSA gets so many complaints, they don’t want to deal with the issue.

    I will try the newer zip code and also e-mail.

  3. Edward Hasbrouck Says:

    Despite the urgent public need to know about these TSA procedures before the Senate confirms a new Administrator of the TSA, the TSA belatedly denied our request for expedited processing, and failed to act on our appeal of that denial before the Senate’s second and probably final hearing on the nomination on November 10, 2009. Our request has now been acknowledged, but we have still received nothing.

  4. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA releaseS excerpts from guidelines for searches Says:

    [...] part of the information the Identity Project is currently attempting to obtain through a pending request under the  Freedom of Information Act for the TSA’s “Screening Management Standard [...]

  5. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] only portions of an earlier version, and the complete current version of which is the subject of one of our current FOIA requests: the TSA’s “Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures [...]

  6. Consumer Travel Alliance » TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] in response to our FOIA requests, and the complete current version of which is the subject of one of our current FOIA requests: the TSA’s “Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures [...]

  7. TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] in response to our FOIA requests, and the complete current version of which is the subject of one of our current FOIA requests: the TSA’s “Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures [...]

  8. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Congress members: “Kill the messenger!” Says:

    [...] pursuing our FOIA appeal for the current version and related documents, which the TSA has been stonewalling, as well as our complaint against the blatantly discriminatory portions of the [...]

  9. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » He’s got a little list (and we’re on it) Says:

    [...] to have been describing a directive, form the top, to stonewall those requests — which is exactly what seems to have been happening.  Rossides testimony could come back to haunt her, and the TSA, [...]

  10. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA lies again about what the strip-search machines see Says:

    [...] Notably, the EPIC complaint filed in court today confirms that our experience with the ongoing TSA FOIA black hole wasn’t an isolated incident. EPIC’s request for expedited FOIA processing was made on [...]

  11. Consumer Travel Alliance » TSA’s nose grows as they explain whole-body scanners Says:

    [...] Notably, the EPIC complaint filed in court today confirms that our experience with the ongoing TSA FOIA black hole wasn’t an isolated incident. EPIC’s request for expedited FOIA processing was made on July 2, [...]

  12. TSA’s nose grows as they explain whole-body scanners Says:

    [...] Notably, the EPIC complaint filed in court today confirms that our experience with the ongoing TSA FOIA black hole wasn’t an isolated incident. EPIC’s request for expedited FOIA processing was made on July 2, [...]

  13. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA reaches out to the Identity Project Says:

    [...] or board flights? (The Identity Project has received no response, after more than 6 months, to our FOIA requests for the TSA’s standard operating procedures, and of course those procedures are not binding [...]

  14. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Lawsuit seeks suspension of TSA virtual strip-searches Says:

    [...] and travel by air common carrier.  We also filed a series of FOIA requests and appeals, which the TSA has to date ignored, for the TSA Standard Operating Procedures, screening-related directives to airlines, and other [...]

  15. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » The DHS FOIA Office “is not in service” Says:

    [...] but to make it impossible even to communicate with them or obtain proof of having made requests.  As we’ve noted before, the DHS use a contractor who often fails either to deliver their mail or return the return [...]

  16. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » How the TSA treats FOIA requesters it doesn’t like Says:

    [...] addressed to the TSA at this address, or at other addresses on DHS websites, is either refused, returned to the sender, redirected to the dead-letter office as undeliverable, [...]

  17. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » How the TSA treats FOIA requesters it doesn’t like Says:

    [...] addressed to the TSA at this address, or at other addresses on DHS websites, is either refused, returned to the sender, redirected to the dead-letter office as undeliverable, or abandoned….  We’ve complained about this to the DHS and to the Congressional oversight committee [...]

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