When the National Security Agency wanted to block the public release of former contractor Edward Snowden's emails, it found an unlikely ally: His privacy.
The government cited a federal law protecting privacy rights to deny journalist Matthew Keys' request for Snowden's messages. Experts said Snowden is far from an exception. From Osama bin Laden to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, "privacy" claims are the government's latest excuse to keep its secrets secret.
"For an agency whose core mission is the violation of our privacy, privacy is an especially Orwellian rationale for the NSA to invoke in justifying its non-compliance" with the Freedom of Information Act, said Ryan Shapiro, an MIT graduate student who frequently files public records requests with the NSA and other agencies. "That it’s Edward Snowden’s privacy the NSA now claims to defend only heightens the irony."
Privacy provisions in two laws are often cited by the federal government to deny records requests: the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act. While striving to open the government's inner workings, the 1966 Freedom of Information Act's drafters also wanted to make sure the privacy of ordinary Americans or low-level government workers was respected from "unwarranted invasion."