Justice expects an E-FOIA avalanche

Justice expects an E-FOIA avalanche

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff



A recent lawsuit provides an inkling of the demands that regulatory agency information technology personnel could face in complying with Electronic Freedom of Information Act requests, a Justice Department official said.

Justice on Aug. 23 handed over computer tapes of information culled from several U.S. Attorney's Of-fice case management databases.

The action came in response to a ruling in a lawsuit filed in March 1998 by Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group.

Public Citizen filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. TRAC, a Syracuse University research center, provides access to a multitude of judicial records. Through the E-FOIA lawsuit, the clearinghouse sought case files for two U.S. attorney's districts.

Justice was required to provide electronic records from extensive databases of cases in the two districts, western Kentucky and Minnesota.

"The lawsuit secured the release of databases and established that the government may be required to release complex components of databases, including linking fields and tables necessary to make use of those databases," said Mike Tank-ersley, a Public Citizen lawyer.

"DOJ has generally been slow in providing requests for access to electronic databases," he said.

Tankersley said E-FOIA, which became law in 1996, is designed to increase public access to electronic records.

A Justice official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the department is still working on implementing all the requirements of E-FOIA and on offering Web access to information that can be legally disclosed.

The official said the long interim between the court order and the release of the computer tapes was largely a matter of deciding which information could be released and of allocating IT staff resources.

"Why did it take so long? We were not attempting to withhold information, but we wanted to meet those competing interests," the official said.

"The reason why that information has not been public was because the law prohibits us fromdisclosing a lot of the information in that system," the official said.

For example, Justice cannot disclose information on grand jury proceedings in criminal cases. On the civil side, laws protecting individual privacy bar Justice from disclosing much of the information in its case management databases.

"When TRAC made the request and followed with the lawsuit, we could not provide the panoply of all the fields in the computer system. We could only provide some of those fields," the Justice official said.

"If we gave a lot of the information around the edges, it would be possible to figure out who a person is," the official said. "The challenge was to provide the information and be as open as possible without compromising the interests of citizens and criminal and civil investigations."

TRAC and Justice officials met and discussed each database field to decide whether the department could release information in that section.

For example, indictment dates were provided, but dates of grand jury testimony and Social Security numbers were not.

"We made point-by-point decisions about what is and what is not" in public bounds, the official said. "It was a deliberative and painstaking process."

A big concern for the department is the burden such requests place on Justice's IT staff.

The Justice official said that the executive office has competent case management staff members whose primary responsibility is to handle technology issues in the field.

E-FOIA requests divert time and attention from those duties, the official said.

"The recent TRAC lawsuit only focused on two districts, but writing the program to generate the information is tremendously time-consuming," the official said.

The official anticipates that interest in such information will increase as word of the lawsuit spreads.

"Frankly, that is one of our concerns. As the requests come in, it will be a significant time and human resource issue for us."

To handle such requests, the U.S. Attorney's Office is reconsidering its personnel and equipment needs.

"We like to think we are above the curve in anticipating more of these coming in," the official said.

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