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):
- FOIA request for TSA screening procedures manual (October 15, 2009)
- Denial of expedited processing (Dated October 26, 2009)
- Appeal of denial of expedited processing (November 3, 2009)
- Denial of appeal of expedited processing (November 10, 2009)
- Appeal of TSA failure to respond by the legal deadline (December 9, 2010)
- TSA reveals discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures (December 10, 2009)
- Complaint of violation of FOIA and criminal violation of Privacy Act by TSA (December 16, 2009)