July 1, 2004

Is the Department of Justice lying?

Author: Joe Barr

Is the U.S. Department of Justice lying about its computer systems in order to avoid living up to the law of the land, or is America really so much at risk that a vital department -- to which the FBI itself reports, and purports to be a major player in the fight against terrorism -- cannot use its computer systems for fear that they will crash and destroy vital data? And why are there no backups?

My mouth fell open in disbelief as I read Ted Bridis's AP story about the Department of Justice Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Office declining to fulfill a request for information about foreign lobbyists because to do so might crash their computer system and cause a massive loss of data.

My first call was directly to Thomas J. McIntyre, the DOJ FOIA chief who was quoted by Bridis as having written: "Implementing such a request risks a crash that cannot be fixed and could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating."

Surprisingly, McIntyre himself answered the call. I identified myself and asked if he had a few minutes to discuss the computer system in question. When he stopped laughing, McIntyre told me that he could not talk to me until it was cleared by the Public Affairs Office, but that in any case, he didn't know any more about computer systems than what he had written in the memo.

The second call went to the DOJ's Office of Public Affairs. I explained what I wanted and a very polite young lady promised to "get back to me." When she did, only an hour or so later, it was to tell me that I would have to contact the FOIA office directly, as the DOJ Public Affairs office doesn't handle FOIA affairs. Joseph Heller would have loved that catch.

Undaunted, I called the DOJ FOIA office again. This time I was told that the lawyer who would normally handle my call wasn't there, he had left for the day. I couldn't get his name because it was a duty rotation, I would just have to call back the next day.

My call the next morning was routed to someone's voice mail. I wasn't connected until the individual had already identified herself, so I simply left my name, number, and the reason for my call and waited for it to be returned. I'm still waiting.

I decided to try the Public Affairs office again. The same nice young lady who had helped me the day before answered. She didn't seem to like my "attitude" about being lied to and given the runaround. A man took her place on the line, and I told my story once more. He could not tell me why the Public Affairs office didn't handle the public affairs for the DOJ FOIA office, nor could he tell me who did. But he said he would get back to me. I'm still waiting for that call, too.

Then I tried a new tack. I called Bob Williams at The Center for Public Integrity, the organization whose FOIA request was denied for the reasons set forth by McIntyre. I was hoping he could give me a contact who could tell me something about this mysterious computer system: the type and the age of the hardware it runs on, the database being used, and the reason for the lack of backups.

Williams told me that they had asked the DOJ point blank about the system, about who runs it -- DOJ staff or contractors -- and were given absolutely no information. Nothing. It's as if the system doesn't really exist.

At this point, that's a far more likely scenario than the one McIntyre coughed up. Now I'm thinking about reporting it to the FBI as having been stolen. More to follow -- right after those calls are returned.


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