Dan Goodman's prediction and politics journal.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I got this from Resourceshelf (http://www.resourceshelf.com/):
By Kevin Bogardus

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2004 — Justice Department officials say a huge database that serves as the public's lone window on lobbying activities by foreign governments has been allowed to decay to a point they cannot even make a copy of its contents.

Responding to a recent Freedom of Information request from the Center for Public Integrity, the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit said it was unable to copy its records electronically because their computer system was "so fragile." In a letter, the head of the unit's Freedom of Information office said that simply attempting to make an electronic copy of the database "could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating."

The database details millions of dollars spent on lobbying activities by foreign governments, companies, and foundations.

Those activities include everything from wining and dining lawmakers to broadcasting issue ads on American television and radio stations.

Unlike foreign governments and political parties, foreign companies can file their lobby forms with the Senate Office of Public Records on Capitol Hill. Under the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, private companies based outside the United States need only to fill out much shorter forms for Congress instead of the substantial information required by FARA.

As the primary collecting point of information on foreign lobbying, the database is vital to tracking the actions of foreign governments in Washington. Yet the system remains susceptible to "a crash that cannot be fixed" if its files were to be copied, according to Justice's Criminal Division Freedom of Information/Privacy Act office.

"The information itself still is very accessible," said Bryan Sierra at the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs. "The basic mandate of the office is to provide information to the public."

Sierra and other officials at the Justice Department public affairs office refused to answer follow-up questions on the state of the FARA database. Sierra, through his receptionist, said he would not discuss the subject any further.

It's true that the information contained in the database can be obtained, as long as those seeking it know the precise files they want and have a substantial copying budget.

The Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit, which is responsible for the records, has a public documents room located in a windowless office on New York Avenue in downtown Washington.

Congress's investigative branch, the General Accounting Office, has looked into the FARA office over several decades, culminating in their last report in 1998. More than once, the GAO has found that FARA lacks the resources to fulfill its responsibilities. As a result, several former high-level federal officials lobbying for foreign interests have not adequately disclosed their activities.

The ancient computers the public and staff use often break down, however, and the printers malfunction. The system's document handling software, itself an antique, operates on Microsoft Windows 95.

Copying charges are also incomprehensibly high—50 cents a page for documents that can easily include hundreds of pages each.

Further, none of the actual filings are available online, although a bare-bones index of registrants does appear on the office's website. However, the most current index posted on the site is 18 months old.
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