Secrecy: FOIA

A Meta-FOIA Request: How Did the Postal Service Release a Congressional Candidate’s SF-86?

By Scott R. Anderson, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, August 30, 2018, 1:58 PM

This past Tuesday, congressional candidate and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger announced that her political opponents appeared to have acquired a copy of her SF-86, a form used by the federal government to collect sensitive personal information from job applicants for background checks and security clearances. Press reports later traced the document’s release to the U.S. Postal Service, who was responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Earlier today, the Postal Service accepted responsibility, apologized to Spanberger, and requested the return of the documents—but stopped short of providing a full explanation. As the New York Times describes:

The Postal Service on Thursday said it “deeply regrets our mistake in inappropriately releasing” the official personnel file of Abigail Spanberger, a former C.I.A. operative now running as Democratic candidate for Congress, and requested that a Republican-aligned super PAC return the file.

“We take full responsibility for this unfortunate error, and we have taken immediate steps to ensure this will not happen again,” David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, said in a statement. He added, “The privacy and security of personal information is of utmost importance to the Postal Service. The Postal Service offers our sincere apology to Ms. Spanberger, and we will request the return of the information which we mistakenly disclosed.”

The Postal Service also acknowledged the possibility of additional inappropriate disclosures.

“We are continuing our review, but believe the issue began in June of 2018, and that only a small number of additional requests for information from personnel files were improperly processed,” Mr. Partenheimer said.

How did this happen? There appear to be only two possibilities: Either the U.S. Postal Service released Spanberger’s SF-86 form to a political organization in a colossal screw-up or someone there did so as an intentional abuse.

It is hard to fathom how anyone thought an individual’s SF-86 was proper to release under FOIA. Such material is protected by the Privacy Act. Certainly the CIA wouldn’t have released the background submission of a former employee. But Spanberger also worked as a postal inspector before her career at the agency, and someone at the Postal Service appears to have either intentionally or negligently dumped it into the lap of a political organization looking for dirt on her.

Here’s how BuzzFeed News describes the sequence of events:

An unredacted copy of the federal security clearance application was obtained by America Rising, a research group allied with the Republican Party, through what the organization believed was a response to its July 9 Freedom of Information Act request from the US Postal Service's human resources section. Once America Rising obtained the documents it then shared it with its client, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

...

Documents viewed by BuzzFeed News show that the request for Spanberger’s entire civilian personnel file was submitted early last month to the National Personnel Records Center, a division of the National Archives. America Rising's request, which sought records related to Spanberger's employment dates at the US Postal Inspection Service, salaries, title, and position descriptions, did not explicitly mention the federal security clearance application, known in bureaucratic circles as an SF-86. Historically, such records would be withheld or heavily redacted under a FOIA privacy act exemption. America Rising’s FOIA request included the first five numbers of Spanberger’s social security number, which the group obtained from LexisNexis, BuzzFeed News has learned, as a way of assisting NPRC in locating the file.

The NPRC pulled Spanberger's personnel folder and, in a letter dated July 12, informed America Rising that the US Postal Service's corporate personnel management office in Washington, DC, maintained custody of personnel files of its former employees. NPRC said it forwarded Spanberger's personnel folder, along with all of its documents, to the USPS management office for review and handling. NPRC also noted in its letter NPRC that some information from the file could be released under the FOIA “without consent from the individual.”

A spokesperson for the NPRC did not respond to requests for comment.

On July 30, the USPS human resources division provided America Rising with Spanberger’s entire personnel folder, including the SF-86.

While an SF-86 is not the sort of material that an agency should be releasing under FOIA, any documents reflecting how that FOIA request was handled—and why—certainly are. So we thought a meta-FOIA request might help shed light on how this release came about. We submitted requests to both the Postal Service and to the National Archives and Records Administration. Each seeks:

  1. “Any FOIA request submitted to, forwarded to, or otherwise currently in your agency’s possession seeking information or records relating to Abigail Spanberger.”
  2. “Any documents provided to the requestor in response to the FOIA request(s) identified in paragraph 1, including but limited to any correspondence, cover letters, and responsive documents.”
  3. “Any documents describing or generated during the processing of the FOIA request(s) . . . including but not limited to certifications, correspondence, clearance sheets, custodian records, search terms, and tracking sheets.”
  4. “Any correspondence or other communications—including but not limited to communications among personnel in your office and communication between personnel in your office and any third parties, such as other federal agencies—relating to the FOIA request(s). . . .” and
  5. “Any correspondence or other communications—including but not limited to communications among personnel in your office and communications between personnel in your office and any third parties, such as other federal agencies—relating to Abigail Spanberger, her personnel record, or her SF-86 form.”

We plan on publishing whatever we receive in response.