DHS: Swiss Bank for Corporate Info?


Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is trying again to loosen some of the Freedom of Information Act restrictions imposed by the Homeland Security Act , including limiting the scope of the exemption, decriminalizing disclosure and restoring whistle-blower protections.

Joined by fellow Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.), Leahy has reintroduced the "Restore FOIA Act" to coincide with Sunshine Week, when journalists around the country are trying to educate the public about their rights to government information.

While Leahy voted for HSA, he did so with reservations about what he saw as an "extraordinarily broad exemption to FOIA in exchange for the cooperation of private companies in sharing information with government regarding vulnerabilities in the nation's critical infrastructure."

Leahy's office says the administration, after the 2002 elections, reneged on compromise language on that section of HSA. "The law that was enacted undermines Federal and State sunshine laws permitting the American people to know what their government is doing," said Leahy in announcing the bill's reintroduction. "Rather than increasing security by encouraging private sector disclosure to the government, it guts FOIA at the expense of our national security and the safety and health of the American people. "

Leahy and company first introduced the Restore FOIA act in the last Congress, but it didn't get anywhere.

While Leahy recognizes the need to balance the right to information with the need to protect national security, he and his colleagues argue that the administration was "disingenuous" in its description of the exemptions as necessary to protect various facilities.

Instead, they argue, the law turns the Department of Homeland Security into a sort of Swiss Bank for shielding corporate information by allowing companies to hide information about public health and safety simply by submitting it to the Department of Homeland security.

HSA, they say, "shields from FOIA almost any voluntarily submitted document stamped by the facility owner as “critical infrastructure.”  This is true no matter how tangential the content of that document may be to the actual security of a facility."

On Feb. 16, Leahy also introduced the OPEN Government Act, which would tighten FOIA request deadlines and penalize agencies that miss them.Currently, various agencies are behind schedule on releasing information to groups seeking PR contracts in the wake of Armstrong Williams and other pay-for-play examples.