03.13.12

Leahy Chairs Annual Sunshine Week Hearing In Senate Judiciary Committee

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, March 13, 2012) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) chaired a hearing Tuesday on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the nation’s premier open government law.  The nation is celebrating Sunshine Week, an observance of the importance of an open and transparent government. 

“Sunshine Week is a timely reminder that, as the Congress considers how best to safeguard critical infrastructure information in cyberspace, we must also safeguard the American public’s right to know about threats to their health and safety,” said Leahy. 

One focus of the Tuesday hearing was exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act for critical infrastructure information.  Leahy authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to add a public interest balancing test requiring the Secretary of Defense to consider whether the disclosure of critical infrastructure information would reveal vulnerabilities that would result in harm to government property or facilities, and whether the public interest in the disclosure of this information outweighs the government’s need to withhold the information.  At Tuesday’s hearing, Leahy committed to working to ensure that the public’s interest in accessing essential health and safety information is protected when Congress considers legislative exemptions to FOIA.

“Securing our Nation’s critical infrastructure information is without question a pressing national priority.  But, unless we also safeguard the public’s right to know about threats to health and safety, the American people will be kept in the dark about dangers that directly affect their lives,” said Leahy.  “The Judiciary Committee has long recognized that ensuring the public’s right to know is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue, but an issue of importance to all Americans.  I hope that this bipartisan tradition will continue as the Congress considers new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act for critical infrastructure information.” 

Leahy is a longtime advocate of open, transparent government, and has been a leader in Congress in pushing for reforms to update and strengthen FOIA.  He is the co-author of the OPEN Government Act, which was signed into law in 2007, and which made the first major reforms to FOIA in more than a decade.  He is also the co-author of the OPEN FOIA Act, which required greater transparency for legislative exemptions to FOIA.  The legislation was signed into law in October 2009. 

Last year, during Sunshine Week, Leahy joined with his longtime partner in FOIA efforts, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) to introduce the Faster FOIA Act, which would establish an advisory panel to examine agency backlogs in processing FOIA requests.  The Senate has twice passed the legislation this Congress, but the House of Representatives has yet to consider the bill.

Member statements and witness testimony, as well as a webcast of the hearing, are available online.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),

Chairman, Senate Committee On The Judiciary,

Hearing On “The Freedom Of Information Act: Safeguarding

Critical Infrastructure Information And The Public’s Right To Know” 

March 13, 2012

 

Today, the Committee holds an important hearing on one of our most cherished open government laws, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  We also commemorate Sunshine Week – an annual celebration of transparency in our democratic society – which is being celebrated across the Nation this week. 

In the decade since September 11, Congress has wrestled with how best to maintain the careful balance between Government secrecy and the public’s right to know as new threats to national security emerge.  Of course, Government secrecy has its place.  But, Government officials will always be tempted to overuse the secrecy stamp.  And when that happens, excessive Government secrecy can come at an unacceptable price – harm to the American public’s interests in safety, healthy living and a clean environment. 

Sunshine Week is a timely reminder that, as the Congress considers how best to safeguard critical infrastructure information in cyberspace, we must also safeguard the American public’s right to know about threats to their health and safety.  Last year, the Supreme Court held in Milner v. Navy that the Government could not rely upon exemption 2 under FOIA to withhold explosives maps from the public.  The Milner decision was an important victory for open government.  But, in its wake, Congress is considering several new legislative exemptions to FOIA for critical infrastructure information.  We should do so carefully. 

In January, President Obama signed into law a carefully-balanced, narrow exemption to FOIA for Department of Defense critical infrastructure information.  I helped craft this provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  That measure requires Government officials to affirmatively determine that withholding critical infrastructure information from the public outweighs other interests – such as ensuring that citizens have access to health and safety information.   This measure will allow the Government to safeguard truly sensitive information, while also safeguarding the public’s right to know about health and safety dangers. 

As Congress considers other proposed legislative exemptions to FOIA for critical infrastructure information, I intend to work with Members on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the public’s interest in accessing essential health and safety information is protected. 

President Obama has made an historic commitment to restoring the presumption of openness to our Government.  I commend the Obama administration for taking many important steps to improve transparency, such as the “ethics.gov portal” that the administration launched last week to provide greater public access to ethics and campaign finance reports.  But, more progress is needed to fulfill the commitment to open government that I share with the President.

I am pleased that representatives from the Department of Justice and the National Archives and Records Administration are here to discuss how the Obama administration is handling critical infrastructure information under FOIA in the wake of the Milner decision.  We also have a distinguished panel of expert witnesses.

Securing our Nation’s critical infrastructure information is without question a pressing national priority.  But, unless we also safeguard the public’s right to know about threats to health and safety, the American people will be kept in the dark about dangers that directly affect their lives.  This Committee has long recognized that ensuring the public’s right to know is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue, but an issue of importance to all Americans.  I hope that this bipartisan tradition will continue as the Congress considers new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act for critical infrastructure information. 

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