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Detainee records search cost: $373,000

Justice Dept. says group must pay to see secret documents

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department says a group that wants to see secret documents about the detention of people jailed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks first must pay nearly $373,000 to cover the cost of searching for the information.

And the advance payment won't guarantee anything that's found will be released.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies must provide the public with access to government documents, unless the information falls under certain exemptions.

The first two hours of a search are free. Agencies then charge for searches, the rate dependent on the level of the employees who do the work.

People for the American Way Foundation, which sued for the records last year, accused the Justice Department of making the cost exceedingly high to deter its request.

''Unfortunately, it's part of a pattern of the Justice Department trying to foreclose access to this kind of information," Elliot Mincberg, the group's legal director, said yesterday.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller disputed that assertion. ''The determination of FOIA costs is dependent upon the amount of research that is required," he said.

Public interest and media groups can seek waivers to fees.

People for the American Way, a civil rights and constitutional liberties group based in Washington, will request a waiver and will go to court if the request is denied, Mincberg said.

Journalism organizations and other public interest groups said the fee was unusually high.

''If that's what it takes to track down secrecy in our court system, things are worse than I thought," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. ''They think if they put a really big price on it, maybe the group will back off."

The Justice Department, in a letter to Mincberg, said the search of all 93 US attorneys offices probably would take a year. ''We do not know at this time how many pages of records, if any, will be eventually released," the letter said.

The estimate of $372,999 is a minimum, representing 13,314¼hours of search time at $28 an hour, the letter said.

Much of the time would be spent looking through ''thousands of case files," the letter said. The US attorney in southern Florida said it would take ''hundreds of hours" to review files in that office alone, probably adding to the cost, the government said.

But Mincberg said there are relatively few cases that would fall under the request. ''They ought to know when they are trying to block information about what are ordinarily open proceedings," he said.

The lawsuit grew out of the government's refusal to release records about the detention of Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel and others, which were sought initially in a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Records of habeas corpus cases have traditionally been open to the public, the suit said.

Bellahouel, a waiter from Algeria, was detained by the FBI after the Sept. 11 attacks. He came under scrutiny because he may have served meals at a South Florida restaurant to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, authorities have said.

Bellahouel was eventually released without being charged. The Supreme Court turned down his appeal, joined by more than 20 media companies and journalism organizations, to consider whether the Justice Department acted properly in secretly jailing him and keeping the proceedings under wraps.

The lawsuit asks for records related to all government requests for sealed proceedings in the cases of people who challenged their detentions after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The group is willing to accept edited copies to protect national security and is not pushing for the release of individuals' identities, Mincberg said.

The goal, the lawsuit says, is to determine how often the Justice Department asked judges to seal such records.

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