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Justice Dept. Withholds Papers

Access: Ashcroft's gun sales proposal is the latest battleground between Congress and the administration.


WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is once again squaring off against congressional investigators over access to government records--this time involving a controversial proposal that a new report says could make it easier for criminals to illegally buy weapons.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft wants to begin having the FBI destroy records of all gun sales within 24 hours of a purchase--a significant departure from the current 90-day standard. But a preliminary review released Thursday by the General Accounting Office suggests that the change would allow hundreds of disqualified buyers, including felons and the mentally ill, to bypass safeguards and illegally purchase guns each year.

What the brief GAO report does not mention, however, is that senior congressional investigators have been tussling with the Justice Department behind the scenes for months in an effort to get far more documentation about the issue. Investigators want to know how Ashcroft, a staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment, arrived at his proposal and who weighed in. The Justice Department is refusing to turn over such material.

"Their response is, 'That's not appropriate for release.' They have kept a close hold on anything they consider to be part of the deliberative process. We don't particularly agree with that, but that's where we stand," said Dan R. Burton, an assistant GAO director.

After more than four months of delays, the Justice Department ultimately gave investigators access to FBI officials to discuss the impact of Ashcroft's proposal, GAO officials said. But FBI officials were directed "not to talk about anything regarding the deliberative process," Burton said, and GAO officials say that many key questions remain unanswered.

The dispute has frustrated congressional investigators, and it mirrors a pattern of standoffs between the Bush administration and Congress over access to information.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, sued the White House in February over its refusal to turn over documents concerning Vice President Dick Cheney's energy plan. Separately, a group of House Democrats is suing the Census Bureau for access to information on how it arrived at adjusted 2000 census figures. And congressional leaders have been irked by the refusal of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Medicare Director Thomas Scully to testify on Capitol Hill about key administration policies.

Open-government advocates said the escalating series of run-ins signals the administration's insistence on keeping its business behind closed doors and Congress' determination to get an inside look at how the administration conducts its affairs.

"We're seeing a new closed society under the Bush administration," charged Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group that is representing the members of Congress suing for the census data.

"Congress has a right to be nosy, and they may be fighting a little bit harder these days because the administration has shut them out," she said. The White House "thinks these issues are none of the public's business, and they forget that Congress has established again and again that the public has a right to know what its government is doing."

Justice Department officials had no immediate comment on the issue.

In July, Ashcroft announced his plan to maintain gun purchase records for only a day, saying that keeping the records for months at a time threatened to violate the buyers' right to privacy and was not the intention of Congress when it set up the gun-check system.

In 1998, the FBI began operating a massive nationwide data clearinghouse that reviews millions of gun purchases a year. Most transactions are cleared in a matter of seconds once it is determined that the prospective buyer has no criminal record or other problem that would ban a purchase. The system has blocked hundreds of thousands of illegal sales.

Ashcroft's proposal to destroy FBI records of the gun purchases within 24 hours has drawn rave reviews from the National Rifle Assn. But gun control groups say it would decimate the background check system, and they said Thursday's preliminary assessment from the GAO--requested by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)--confirms their fears.

Based on FBI data, GAO investigators found that between July and October of last year, there were 100 cases in which authorities used data that had been kept up to 90 days to go back to try to retrieve guns from people who were not authorized to buy them. That would amount to about 300 unauthorized purchases over the course of a year.

These illegal sales "never would have been identified under the next-day destruction system," and authorities would not have been able to go back to try to find the buyers, said Burton, of the GAO.

Many of the unauthorized sales appear to have involved situations where a buyer's conviction in a domestic assault--a banned category--was not immediately apparent through the FBI check system, he said.

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