Rich DOJ database kept secret

The Justice Dept.'s database of registered foreign agents could supply a wealth of information to the public, journalists, and government investigators - but the system is antiquated, and inaccessible, and - charges a journalism center - that's the way Justice wants to keep it.

Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, the Justice Department maintains a database of foreign lobbyists - from both governments and overseas companies. Unfortanately, the database is largely unavailable to the public. The Center for Public Integrity charges that seems to be how Justice officials want to keep it. According to CPI:

Whether by design or neglect, the FARA public records office itself is a Byzantine operation. It is only open to the public for only four hours each day, although it allows the lobbyists for foreign principals to stop by with filings anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And even though the office maintains filings electronically, it does not make the vast majority of those filings available electronically to the public. Citizens who want to obtain copies of the detailed forms that offer the best insight on the lobbying activities, called "supplementals," need to make a personal visit to the FARA public records office—and possess well-developed computer skills and a substantial bankroll to pay for photocopies of it. Even then, they must know fairly precisely what information they are looking for and where it is likely to be located.

Should they be lucky enough to find the documents they want, they will be charged 50 cents per page for copies. FARA filings often contain dozens of pages. The Center for Public Integrity paid more than $3,000 for copies of the documents used in its report on lobbying by China, and then spent days transferring the data in the filings to a database for analysis.

But, judging from the responses CPI has received from Justice, the problem, as with so many issues at FBI and Justice, may mostly be bad technology. Here are the "excuses" CPI says they've received from Justice:

  • In June 2004, the Justice Department told the Center that because the FARA office's computer system was so antiquated, even attempting to copy the database could cause it to be lost forever.
  • In the fall of 2004, the Justice Department said it was in the process of updating its FARA database system and expected to be able to produce a full working copy for the Center by the end of December 2004. In early 2005, the Justice Department supplied the Center with what it purported to be a working copy of the FARA database, but it did not contain the proper index information or the necessary software to make the database functional. In addition, the Center later discovered that the Justice Department had deleted several important fields of information from the database without disclosing that it had done so.
  • In negotiations with the Center to dismiss its lawsuit, the Justice Department said it would supply a complete working copy of the updated database by July 2005. The Center then dropped its lawsuit to obtain a copy of the useless, antiquated database, but immediately filed a new FOIA request for a full, functioning copy of the modernized database promised by the Justice Department.
  • In late August, the Justice Department sent a letter stating that a copy of the modernized database could be provided only in an Oracle database format and would require the Center to obtain (apparently very expensive) software. In addition, the letter said that even if the Center were to obtain the software, it would require extensive and complicated modifications in order to work properly with the modernized FARA database.