"We weren't aware there were databases that could be destroyed just by copying them."
-- Bob Williams, Senior Writer, Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity sought information about lobbying activities available under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law passed in response to German propaganda before World War II. Database records describe details of meetings among foreign lobbyists, the administration and Congress, and payments by foreign governments and some 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 Tuesday.
[Freedom of Information Act/Public Affairs Unit Chief Thomas J.] McIntyre explained in a May 24 letter that the computer system -- operated in the counterespionage section of the Justice Department's criminal division -- "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. "I've never heard the excuse that making the equivalent of a backup copy would somehow cause steam to rise out of the computer."
The government said an overhaul of the system should be finished by December and copies should be available then.