Lobbyist database too old for copying

Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Act Unit site

A Justice Department database on lobbyists is so old that copying the information could lead to a major loss of data, department officials said this week.

Officials expect to finish an upgrade of the foreign lobbyist database by the end of the year. But until that task is completed, officials said, its information must be printed at the Foreign Agents Registration Act Unit office. The database has information on foreign governments lobbying in the United States. That includes issues they have lobbied on, who they are lobbying for and who they have contacted in the government.

Officials discovered the state of the database this week after the Center for Public Integrity filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials at the watchdog group asked for the entire database to be electronically copied and stored, but Justice officials said fulfilling the request could cause the system to crash.

"The current application was not designed for mass export of all stored images, and thus, the information is not readily available in the format requested," Thomas McIntyre, chief of the Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Unit, wrote in response to CPI. "As they have experienced substantial problems with the current 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."

McIntyre said new technology is expected to be done by December.

Rather than risking a massive crash of the entire database, officials are working quickly to secure the system and make information available in an electronic format, said Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra.

"They are moving to more of a computerized system so it's done in an easier fashion," Sierra said. "They aren't there yet. [They] can't provide information in certain ways and certain fashions. It is accessible to anybody who wants to do what taxpayers had to do for years — walk into the office and give the very basics of how to get the information."

Bob Williams, a project director at CPI, said because this is the only repository for foreign lobbyist information, the department should have a backup in case the database is destroyed or data is lost.

"They supposedly have document-handling software and we wanted electronic copies of this stuff because we didn't want to deal with all that paper," Williams said. "This is stuff that screams to be put up on the Internet."

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