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Defense Department, privacy group spar over data request

Lawyers for a public-interest group and the Defense Department clashed Thursday over the group's demands that the agency release information about a data-mining project.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in May requested information through the Freedom of Information Act from the Defense Intelligence Agency regarding its use of Verity K2 Enterprise, a program that allegedly mines for data via intelligence information and Internet searches in order to identify terrorists.

The Pentagon rejected EPIC's request, claiming the group did not sufficiently explain the urgency of receiving that specific information. EPIC subsequently filed suit in July in the hopes of gaining access to the material.

The two sides met in U.S. district court Thursday to hash out a schedule for the release of the material EPIC is seeking.

The Pentagon has not completed all the searches necessary to provide the data to EPIC, an attorney for the agency told Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. While the total number of government documents is "more inches of documents than feet," some of those documents deal with classified foreign intelligence and will take longer to decipher, according to the department.

Defense said it would prefer that the case be regarded as normal litigation rather than a FOIA case, a notion promptly rejected by EPIC General Counsel David Sobel. "For better or worse, this is a FOIA case," he said. Narrowing the scope of the case is not necessary because EPIC does not consider its request to be broad, he said. "It's not a large universe of material," Sobel added.

It would take Defense at least four months to complete any request for the data EPIC is seeking, the department said.

That timeframe is "extremely generous to the agency," Sobel said. "I at least ask for a consideration of rolling releases so we wouldn't have to wait almost a year" for these documents.

Kollar-Kotelly refused to leave the issue "open ended" and demanded that the two sides decide on a framework to either submit a release schedule or a formal request for a delay.

Defense now has until Dec. 28 to submit a schedule or a request for a stay, and EPIC has until Jan. 10 to respond. A final response from Defense is due by Jan. 24.

Kollar-Kotelly urged Defense to inform her by Dec. 28 when it thinks it can provide her with a "Vaughn index," which essentially notes which records it plans to withhold from the public.