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Senator lies -- to protect us, of course

by Robert Leger, Springfield News-Leader, 24 November 2002


I woke up Friday morning listening to a U.S. senator lie through his teeth.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Host Bob Edwards was asking him about broad new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act included in the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.

Bennett, without betraying a bit of irony, disagreed with Edwards' description. The changes, he said, did not gut the freedom of information law but improved it. There was no substantive difference, he said, between this language and a Senate compromise he agreed to during the summer.

Has he read the bill?

Bennett's colleague, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who helped broker the more-narrowly-written summer compromise, called this the "most severe weakening of the Freedom of Information Act in its 36-year history." He was right.

The Freedom of Information Act guarantees citizens' access to most government documents -- and thus, the ability to hold their leaders accountable. Government officials don't like the law; they have become experts at dragging their feet for years before responding to a request. But, eventually, a citizen could get much of the information he or she wanted.

The bill that Bennett calls an improvement will make that harder. It closes any "information" -- not merely records -- about critical infrastructure voluntarily shared with any federal agency, not just the Homeland Security Department.

It makes that information off-limits for any civil action. If a company's negligence led to a chemical leak, but the company uses the law to voluntarily report information about the leak as a critical infrastructure issue, that information is off-limits to people in the community. They can never know how this company put their lives at risk.

And if a conscientious government employee, recognizing that the law was being abused, leaked information to a reporter? The employee could spend up to a year in jail.

U.S. law does not treat leaks of defense information as a criminal act, nor should it. But leaks of business information will now be a crime. We have our priorities.

And Bennett has the gall to tell us this is an improvement in the law, that Americans will be better protected. From what? Knowledge? The law adopts as American policy the proposition that ignorance is bliss.

"Homeland security" has elbowed in on God, mom and apple pie. Let a president, an attorney general or a senator utter those words, and vile proposals are suddenly gilded in gold.

Some small amount of critical infrastructure information should be kept confidential. But the bill that Bennett defends goes far beyond that. It is a gift to industry, a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is an assault on basic American principles.

Perhaps Bennett and those who speak like him in Washington truly believe we have to sacrifice that which makes America special in order to save America. That thought frightens me far more than any terrorist attack can.

Copyright © 2002 Springfield News-Leader
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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