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Leahy introduces 'Restore FOIA' bill to amend Homeland law

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Leahy introduces ‘Restore FOIA’ bill to amend Homeland law

  • A bill to curb the Homeland Security Act provision criminalizing disclosure of some business-submitted information was introduced in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

March 13, 2003 — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the “Restoration of Freedom of Information Act” today to combat requirements for secrecy in legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security, which Congress passed in November.

Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.), James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) joined in sponsoring the bill. A similar Senate amendment with bipartison sponsorship in the last Congress would have prevented the categorical secrecy the law now demands, but it did not pass.

The widely criticized secrecy provisions of the new Homeland Security law criminalize disclosure of “critical infrastructure” information voluntarily submitted to the government by businesses, and grant businesses which share that information with the government immunity from liability for wrongdoing that the information may reveal.

Dubbed the “Restore FOIA” bill, the new proposal would still provide businesses with assurance that actual communications about the vulnerability of critical infrastructures would be protected, but it would narrow significantly the range of secrecy protected by law and curb the criminal penalties for disclosure.

Leahy provided a side-by-side comparison of the bill and the law Wednesday at a press conference.

The new bill would not criminalize disclosure of critical infrastructure information or preempt any whistleblower protections as does the current law, which could punish whistleblowers by a fine and up to one year in jail if their disclosures concerned the critical infrastructure. It does not prohibit use of the information in civil court cases to hold companies accountable for wrongdoing or to protect the public.

The new bill limits protection to records pertaining specifically to the “vulnerability of and threats to” the critical infrastructure, unlike the law that now protects a vague category of information which Leahy said could “allow information not directly related to the vulnerabilities to inappropriately be protected.”

The bill would make clear that information businesses submit to agencies other than Homeland Security is not protected by this law, even if identical information is made available to the new department. Business information submitted to the government already enjoys broad protections under existing exemptions to the FOI Act.

The Leahy measure enjoys broad support from press groups who signed a letter endorsing it and from a group of public interest groups which issued a statement in its support.

RD

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