Incoming Senate Powerhouse: Time To Rev Up FOI Laws

By: Mark Fitzgerald

The senator who will oversee the powerful Judiciary Committee as a Democratic majority takes the chamber next month says strengthening open government and citizen privacy laws will be its priority.

In a little-noticed speech last week at Georgetown University Law Center, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lamented the recent congressional acquiescence to the Bush administration’s secrecy, and promised to restore the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches of government.

“Unfortunately, open, informed government has been under assault by the first administration in modern times that is explicitly hostile to the public’s right to know,” Leahy said. “By using ideology to trump science, gagging government scientists and experts, reclassifying public documents and undermining important tools like [the Freedom Of Information Act], this government has displayed a dangerous disdain for the free press and the public.”

He said he will work to strengthen open-government laws, and to provide more congressional oversight of the White House.

“Congress has a solemn duty to protect the rights of the American people and to perform meaningful oversight to make sure the laws are followed,” Leahy said. “Real oversight makes government more accountable and more effective in keeping us safe.”

Leahy charged that the Bush administration “has rolled back open government laws and systematically eroded Americans’ privacy rights,” while “brazenly” refusing to answer “the legitimate oversight questions of the public’s duly elected representatives.”

Congressional oversight of the FBI and the Department of Justice “will again be one of my highest priorities when I take the gavel once more as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Leahy said. He said that under his previous chairmanship of the committee, oversight was a bipartisan affair, and that he expected to revive that tradition in the incoming Congress.

“I came to the Senate during the ebb tide of Watergate and Vietnam,” Leahy said. “In my 32 years since then in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress so willfully derelict in its duties as during this Administration. This has been an unfortunate chapter in Congress’s history, a time when our Constitution was under assault, when our legal and human rights were weakened, when our privacy and other freedoms were eroded. This election was an intervention. The American people rose up to take away Congress’s rubber stamp, and to demand a new direction with more accountability.”

The Bush administration, Leahy added, has done “real damage … to our system of government” in the last few years.

Leahy’s speech was first reported by the alternative Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, which put the complete text on its Web site.

Leahy called for new privacy laws to preserve rights at a time when, he said, the Bush administration is spawning new databases but refusing to explain what they are and why they have been created.

“Privacy rights belong to the people, not to the government,” he said. Bush White House officials “need to stop treating the privacy of ordinary Americans as an expendable commodity.”

Leahy suggested he would revive legislation first proposed two years ago by him and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that establishes stronger penalties for identity theft.

Another priority will be oversight of the billions in development aid sent to Iraq. “Rarely if ever has so much money been funneled so fast to so many unsupervised contractors, with so few safeguards,” Leahy said, noting that many Iraqis go without basic services while watching “billions of dollars being siphoned off by unsupervised contractors.”

He said he intends to revive the blocked “War Profiteering Prevention Act” to make easier prosecution for abuse and waste of aid.

Leahy also said he plans to establish a new “Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee” that would focus attention on protecting human rights worldwide, and on curbing American violations.

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