That's the response journalist Justin Elliott got when he filed a FOIA request with the NSA. Eliot was trying to get information about the agency's public-relations efforts in connection with a documentary on the NSA aired by the National Geographic Channel. "There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," the NSA FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) officer, Cindy Blacker, told Elliott. The system is apparently "a little antiquated and archaic," she said.

The revelation, published by ProPublica, that the NSA couldn’t search itself was greeted with disbelief by transparency and accountability advocates. Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “It’s just baffling. This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally, and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request?”

On the one hand, it may not seem surprising that a super-secret federal government agency says it can’t locate information about its activities.

On the other hand, all federal agencies must respond to a FOIA request, either positively (handing over the requested information) or negatively (denying the requested information). If denying the requested information, the agency must acknowledge it has records relevant to the request and must state a statutory reason why access is denied. For an agency, supposedly expert in tracking information about others, to say it can’t track information about itself appears troubling, embarrassing, or obfuscating.

The story came a day after the same reporter, Justin Elliott, had written a comprehensive round-up of what the public knows, and doesn’t know, about what the NSA does, and doesn’t do. The article, Does The NSA Tap That?, points to the vast capabilities the NSA, and its British counterpart, the GCHQ (British Government Communications Headquarters), have to intercept digital communications around the globe.

Elliott asks these key questions:

  • Q. Is the NSA really sucking up everything? A. It’s not clear.
  • Q. Is purely domestic communication being swept up in the NSA’s upstream surveillance? A. It’s not at all clear.
  • Q. Are companies still cooperating with the NSA’s Internet tapping? A. We don’t know.
  • Q. What legal authority is the NSA using for “upstream” surveillance? A. It’s unclear, though it may be a 2008 law that expanded the government’s surveillance powers.
  • Q. How much Internet traffic is the NSA storing? A. We don’t know, but experts speculate it’s a lot.

The article is well worth a read, if for no other reason than the copious links Elliott provides to source documents.