David Sklar, Justice Department's Fragile Read-Never Database. This must surely be a candidate for the dumbest FOIA excuse ever:
The Center for Public Integrity filed a Freedom of Information request to get a copy of the Foreign Agent Registration database, which includes information on activities by registered lobbyists on behalf on foreign governments.
The Justice Department said that it couldn't provide a copy of the entire database because doing so could destroy the database.
Meanwhile, you can go to the appropriate office in Washington DC and pay fifty cents a page to make copies of documents. The information is available in (expensive) page-by-page drips, but not as a whole.
I am curious to learn about the quantum database software in use that could subject the data to changes by reading it. Or perhaps the 8 inch floppies that the data is stored on would get too hot and melt if they had to spin so fast to copy entire files?
It's hard to imagine what's behind this. Terminal incompetence? Cussed desire to undermine FOIA? Halliburton provided the equipment?
Or could it be a Rovian fear that someone will cross-index the database with, say, the lists of donors to the Bush campaign?
Well, if you have information in a relational-database table and want to get “all of it”, there are two ways to do it: type “SELECT * FROM FOREIGN_AGENTS” or some such into the SQL command prompt (or the equivalent reporting tool), or back up the database and give the backup to whoever wanted the data. With a very very large database, processing a “give me all of it” SQL command places a significant load on the server. If the database also contains information that’s not relevant to the query for foreign agents, or information that’s legitimately excludable from FOIA, then the Justice Department couldn’t just hand over a backup copy and say “here you go”.
I assume that a competent database administrator would be able to get the relevant information out of the Justice Department’s database without bringing the server to its knees. But why should we assume that this Administration hires competent people to handle FOIA requests? They’re incompetent at everything else….
Now if you want irony . . . read this story: The HIDTA & Newark Police Crime Blog
Ask for copies of the tape backups to the database.
The US Federal govt does have some databases that do not support an SQL type interface. But there is no chance that they have any that cannot be backed up onto tape.