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US reconsiders, now says it's not really OK to lie to reporters

U.S. Justice Department

The Justice Department has gotten the message from journalists, interest groups and government watchdogs and has decided to withdraw its proposal to allow federal agencies to lie to people seeking sensitive documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Currently, if a requested document is so sensitive that it would be dangerous to acknowledge its very existence, the government is allowed to tell you that it can neither confirm nor deny whether there is such a document.

Last month, the Justice Department proposed a rule revision that would let government agencies tell requesters there is no such document — even if there is. According to the proposal, which was retrieved by the nonprofit investigative project ProPublica, agencies would be allowed to "respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist."

(You can read ProPublica's original story here and — assuming you want to plow through all 9,000 words of it — the entire DOJ proposal here.)

The proposal drew together an odd assortment of Washington types in opposition, collecting Republicans like Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas with Democrats like Sens. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Mark Udall of Colorado under the umbrella of the American Civil Liberties Union, which uncovered the proposal.

Grassley sent a letter to the Justice Department last month demanding an explanation. (As the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he can feel fairly certain that his letters get read by top officials there.) He said in a statement this week that "the Justice Department decided that misleading the American people would be wrong, and made the right decision to pull the proposed regulation."

Laura Murphy, who runs the ACLU's D.C. operations, said putting an end to "lies about the mere existence of documents is one step toward restoring Americans' trust in their government."

NPR has a good explanation of the background to the dispute here.

Alex Johnson covers breaking news, projects and technology for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MAlexJohnson and on Facebook at MAlexJohnsonMSNBC.