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Tickled by CIA’s Tweets, Anthropologist Files Suit

The CIA’s tongue-in-cheek Twitter posts inspired a federal complaint from an anthropologist specializing in social media, hoping to get records on the spy agency’s funny bone.

BOSTON (CN) - The CIA’s tongue-in-cheek Twitter posts inspired a federal complaint from an anthropologist specializing in social media, hoping to get records on the spy agency’s funny bone.

Set to get her doctorate this year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amanda Johnson brought her May 4 complaint in Boston after waiting years on an answer by the CIA to her request under the Freedom of Information Act.

“It is rare for a federal agency – especially an agency whose duties are so serious – to employ a humorous tone when communicating with the public,” the 11-page complaint states. “This makes the CIA’s decision to do so a matter of both public and academic interest, especially for scholars in the humanities.”

Johnson notes that a sarcastic tone has been evident in the CIA’s Twitter communications from the get-go.

“Its first post on Twitter was itself a FOIA joke, referencing the ‘Glomar response’ to FOIA requests,” according to the complaint.

On June 6, 2014, at 10:49 a.m, the verified Twitter account @CIA wrote: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is out first tweet.”

Not everyone is a fan, according to the complaint, which links to an article by Business Insider  after the CIA posted a joke about the rapper Tupac, whose death in 1996 inspired a still-active conspiracy theory. “No, we don’t know where Tupac is. #twitterversary,” @CIA wrote on July 7, 2014.

Johnson notes that the Business Insider article shows how some in the public could interpret the CIA’s attempts at humor as affirmation “that the agency is too cavalier and reckless in its activities.”

To celebrate the first anniversary of the Twitter account’s creation, @CIA tweeted out a list of the top five things someone can learn when following the CIA on Twitter. One of the points was redacted; another mentioned “#aliensinthebasement” after touting the “entertaining conspiracy theories” held by the CIA’s followers. And the No. 1 reason was that the CIA will tweet out pictures of cats if they run out of other information.

The CIA’s Twitter account had been active just six months when Johnson sent her FOIA request, seeking copies of any communication that Twitter and the CIA have exchanged, any employee guidelines for running the Twitter account and a list of the computer apps that are used to send out tweets.

Though the CIA acknowledged receipt of the request, Johnson says she is still waiting for a determination nearly 900 days later.

Fueling the anthropologist’s concern, the CIA’s annual report on information requests noted that the agency had 1,034 pending requests at the start of the 2015 Fiscal Year, and that it processed 3,181 requests in Fiscal Year 2015.

Based on her tracking number, Johnson estimates that her request was about 1,760 in line, and that the CIA passed over her request in violation of its “first-in, first-out” processing procedures. “If these figures are true, it would mean that, at the time the report was issued, at least 1,000 requests that were received after Ms. Johnson’s request were processed ahead of her, and that the CIA had long passed their average response time for a simple request such as this,” the complaint states.

As of the date of Johnson’s complaint, @CIA has made 2,400 tweets and has 1.88 million followers. For the most part, the account's tweets feature historical figures or artifacts from the agency’s history, as well as advertisements of job opportunities for college graduates.

Johnson is represented by Andrew Sellars of the Boston University School of Law.

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