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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Bid for information on lobbyists denied
By Ted Bridis
"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 McIntyre, chief of 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.
"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 said yesterday. The watchdog group in Washington, D.C., made the request in January. He said the group expects to appeal the Justice Department's decision.
Many Justice Department computer systems are considered outdated. The FBI is spending nearly $600 million to modernize its systems.
The Center for Public Integrity sought information about lobbying activities available under the 1938 U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. Database records describe meetings among foreign lobbyists, the administration and Congress, and payments by foreign governments and 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 yesterday.
McIntyre explained in a May 24 letter that the computer system "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.
The government said that an overhaul of the system should be finished by December and that copies should be available then.
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 only to prevent "foreseeable harm."
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