It is a detailed database that could be shining a constant light on the shadowy and complicated world of Washington lobbyists working for foreign governments and overseas companies, a potentially invaluable tool for promoting government transparency, honesty and accountability.
Instead, the Foreign Agent Registration Act database housed at the Justice Department— which is a public record by law—is a shadowy, complicated beast. And that seems to be just fine with the government officials in charge of it.
For example, many of the most damning records in the Washington, D.C., scandal involving indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff lay buried in the FARA database until they were finally dug up by congressional investigators. The database is rich in such records, everything from meetings between government officials and high-powered lobbyists to public relations campaigns.
The Justice Department defended its stewardship of the FARA database when contacted by the Center for this report.
"It is the mission of the FARA office to provide public information in a timely, effective and fair manner," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra in an email response to questions from the Center. "The FARA staff is committed to providing publicly available information as quickly and efficiently as possible." (See the Center's response to Justice and the Department's reply.)
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.
"That is absolutely ridiculous," said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the Science-State-Justice-Commerce subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the Justice Department's budget. "Those kinds of records should be freely available to the public."
Even the information that the FARA office supplies to Congress is relatively old and contains few of the details denoted in the filings.
The FARA unit provides Congress with semi-annual reports on registrants and their clients, which are subsequently posted on the FARA Web site. The reports are usually a year or two old, however. Currently, the latest one on the FARA Web site covers the six months that ended on Dec. 31, 2003.
One government secrecy watchdog group says the situation "reeks of bad faith and reflects poorly on the integrity of the Justice Department itself."
"They're going out of their way to make this valuable resource nearly impossible to use, thereby defeating its purpose," says Steve Aftergood, editor of Secrecy News, an electronic newsletter published by the American Federation of Scientists. "What's the point of maintaining a database that no one can really use? It's extremely cynical."
The Center for Public Integrity has been trying to obtain a working electronic copy of the FARA database through the Freedom of Information Act for more than 18 months. The Center wants to make the entire database freely available to the public on its Web site—something that some government officials, such as Wolf, believe the FARA office should already be doing itself.
The battle to obtain the FARA database has resulted in some of the most remarkable excuses and roadblocks from government officials the Center has ever seen. The group has filed hundreds of FOIA requests with various government agencies over the past 15 years.
The Justice Department has never officially denied the Center's right to obtain a working copy of the FARA database. Instead, it has cited one technical or bureaucratic problem after another that it has said prevented it from fulfilling the request for a complete working copy of the database. They include:
- 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. Computer experts contacted by the Center called the excuse laughable—and almost certainly untrue. The Center subsequently filed a lawsuit to force the Justice Department to comply with its FOIA request.
- 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.
One of the oddest exchanges in the Center's pursuit of the database came in March 2005, when the Justice Department sent a letter warning that the numbers in the database it was supplying at that point should not be trusted.
"It is not designed to be released to the public in its current form," warned the letter. "Some of this information is preliminary, and has not been reviewed for accuracy. In some cases, it may be affirmatively misleading."
The Center for Public Integrity will continue its efforts—including negotiations and legal options—to obtain a working copy of the database.