A while back, my colleague Anupama Narayanswamy reported on the RealTime blog that the disclosures filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act were about to go online. Until now, these detailed disclosures--which require those paid to attempt to influence U.S. policies for foreign governments and some government-controlled entities to list their meetings with government officials, including members of Congress and their staff--were publicly available, but just barely. Only those who visited FARA's New York Ave. office here in Washington, D.C., between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed Federal holidays), and looked up the records on balky, user-unfriendly interface, could get them, and only those prepared to pay 50 cents a page to copy them could get them out of that office. Now, some of those records are available online, although a FARA staffer tells us that the site isn't officially public--they haven't formally announced its availability.
The site, which is a work in progress, could definitely use a few improvements -- one can't link to search results, for example, and when I searched for the short form registration that Robert Torricelli filed (after his ethical flame out in Congress, the former New Jersey senator represented the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office), rather than a document, there's a message saying that it's "Available FARA Public Office," meaning that trips to the New York Avenue office are not entirely a thing of the past. (Some of the filings of his firm, Rosemont Associates LLC, are available to read through, including, for example, this one, which explains that Torricelli's firm tries to persuade current members of Congress to visit Taiwan and to adopt policies favorable to Taiwan. This one, starting on page 14, lists Torricelli's contacts with the offices of Sens. Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin and others -- some 24 in all -- from Sept. 2006 to Feb. 2007.)
The site offers its search results in spread sheet form (very useful for making databases), but when Anupama tried to download the entries for her Afghanistan search (the first country listed), she only got twenty of the twenty-four results. When I searched for China, I got 204 results, which seemed like a low number to me, but they all seemed to download fine into the spread sheet. The site should also offer a macro download, making it easy to get the entire database to one's desktop. RSS feeds making interested folks aware of new filings would be nice too.
FARA is soliciting feedback on the site -- the email address is embedded in a link on this page -- so give the site a whirl and FARA some feedback. I know I'm going to.
Hard to believe, but a few years ago the Justice Department, citing the fragility of the database, refused to turn these records over to the Center for Public Integrity, which later went to court to obtain them (and got them in an unusable form).
Hat tip to Kevin Bogardus of the Hill, who did a fine story on these records a little more than a month ago.