WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is offering a novel reason for denying a request seeking the Justice Department's database on foreign lobbyists: Copying the information would bring down the computer system.
"Implementing such a request risks a crash that cannot be fixed and could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating," wrote Thomas J. McIntyre (search), chief in the Justice Department's office for information requests.
Advocates for open government said the government's assertion that it could not copy data from its computers was unprecedented but representative of generally negative responses to Freedom of Information Act (search) requests.
"This was a new one on us. We weren't aware there were databases that could be destroyed just by copying them," Bob Williams of the Center for Public Integrity (search) said Tuesday. The watchdog group in Washington made the request in January. He said the group expects to appeal the Justice Department's decision.
Many Justice Department computer systems, especially at the FBI, are considered outdated. The FBI is spending nearly $600 million to modernize its antiquated systems.
The Center for Public Integrity sought information about lobbying activities available under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (search), a 1938 law passed in response to German propaganda before World War II. Database records describe details of meetings among foreign lobbyists, the administration and Congress, and payments by foreign governments and some overseas groups for political advertisements and other campaigns.
"What they're asking for is a lot, and it's not something at this particular point in time we have the technical ability to do," Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said Tuesday.
McIntyre explained in a May 24 letter that the computer system — operated in the counterespionage section of the Justice Department's criminal division — "was not designed for mass export of all stored images" and said the system experiences "substantial problems."
"It sounds like incredible negligence for an agency that is keeping public records to keep them in such a precarious condition," said Stephen Doig, interim director at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. "I've never heard the excuse that making the equivalent of a backup copy would somehow cause steam to rise out of the computer."
The government said an overhaul of the system should be finished by December and copies should be available then.
Paper copies of records still are available for review four hours each day for people willing to travel to Washington, the Justice Department noted. Williams said the index available to researchers there is at least 12 months outdated, "which kind of renders it useless."
The government's explanation for not providing the information was similar to reasons offered more than a decade ago, when journalists increasingly sought electronic data, said Brant Houston, head of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, a journalism organization at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"It's amazing the number of explanations all of us have heard over the years in dealing with government data sets," Houston said. "This one is really different."
Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered federal agencies in October 2001 to review more closely which documents they release. Ashcroft's policy lets officials withhold information on any "sound legal basis." Under looser policies issued in 1993, agencies could hold back information to prevent "foreseeable harm."
"This is an administration and Justice is an agency that does not go out of its way to make information available to the public," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.