FBI database use to remain secret

Despite a pledge to open government, the Obama administration has endorsed a Bush-era decision to keep secret key details of an FBI computer database that allows agents and analysts to search a billion documents with a wealth of personal information about Americans and foreigners.

President Obama’s Justice Department quietly told a federal court in Washington last week that it would not second-guess the previous administration’s decisions to withhold some information about the bureau’s Investigative Data Warehouse.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, had sued under the Freedom of Information Act to get records showing how the FBI protects the privacy of Americans whose personal information winds up in the vast database.

As a result, there is no public list of all the databases the FBI sucks into this computer warehouse, no information on how individuals can correct errors about them in this FBI database and no public access to assessments the bureau did of the warehouse’s impact on Americans’ privacy.

On his first day in office, Obama reversed a policy on releasing government documents so there is a “presumption in favor of disclosure.” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. promptly beat Obama’s deadline by two months for issuing new guidelines that urged release unless “foreseeable harm” would result.

In contrast, the decision to endorse Bush’s withholding of records about the FBI’s data warehouse was filed in federal court last Monday with no other public word from the current administration.

Michael J. Sniffen