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In an era where the government collects more information than ever before, the importance of maintaining public access to that information becomes a bigger concern with each passing year.
That point isn’t lost on U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. Serving as a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee — in her freshman term, it should be noted — she has paid particular attention to the Freedom of Information Act, the venerable 50-year-old law that requires the public disclosure of records held by the federal government.
Hirono last year co-sponsored the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which would require federal agencies to make FOIA records available for inspection in an electronic format, limit agencies’ ability to charge fees if they foot drag on FOIA requests and establish a legal presumption in favor of disclosure, among other things.
The bill passed the Senate last December, but wasn’t heard by the GOP-controlled House. With the Senate now under Republican leadership, too, the Intelligence Committee’s prevailing philosophy regarding what government records should and should not be made public may have changed, as well.
But Hirono’s interest in keeping public records public hasn’t.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono spoke out recently against a provision in a cybersecurity bill that would create an overly broad FOIA exemption.
Hirono made headlines earlier this week with a statement that she and Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico inserted in the committee’s report on the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. That bill aspires in part to create the first new FOIA exemption in more than 40 years for any “information shared with or provided to the federal government” under the cybersecurity act.
As though such a far-reaching exemption weren’t enough, the bill would also withhold, “without discretion,” any “cyber threat indicators and defensive measures” that companies or individuals share with the feds. And it seeks to extend that exemption to any disclosure under state or local laws, as well.
Not so fast, said Hirono.
“Government transparency is critical in order for citizens to hold their elected officials and bureaucrats accountable,” Hirono and Henrich wrote. “However, the bill’s inclusion of a new FOIA exemption is overbroad and unnecessary as the types of information shared with the government through this bill would already be exempt from unnecessary public release under current FOIA exemptions.”
An overly panicky mood of urgency has spurred feverish action on the bill, which despite Hirono’s objections, passed the Intelligence Committee on a 14-1 vote. The high-profile hacking of entertainment giant Sony last year and suspected Russian attempts to infiltrate White House computers this year have some legislators sounding the alarm.
“Cybercriminals and our foreign adversaries are probing our computer systems and stealing our data,” Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr said in a recent Republican broadcast address in support of the bill.
That may well be the case. But Burr fails to explain how shutting off public access, without discretion, to government records related to cybersecurity enforcement makes our computer systems and data any safer. Hirono and Heinrich, meanwhile, ultimately voted for the bill, but said they may seek a floor amendment to address their concerns. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon cast the committee’s lone “no” vote.
A quotation from Benjamin Franklin, often cited in circumstances such as this, bears repeating. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
We commend Sen. Hirono’s understanding of that principle and encourage her and her colleagues to remove this overreaching, unnecessary FOIA exemption before the bill goes before the full Senate.
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