Congressional Action on Secrecy

The Senate on June 17 passed a bill sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham that would exempt from the Freedom of Information Act certain photographs documenting the abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody.  Senator Graham said that if the bill was not enacted into law, the Obama Administration had assured him it would classify the photos to prevent their release.  “Rahm Emanuel has indicated to me that the President is committed to not ever letting these photos see the light of day,” he said.

Strictly speaking, however, classification alone is not sufficient to exempt any such record from the FOIA.  It must also be “properly classified,” and that is a determination that is to be made by a court of law.

Senate Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill to limit the abuse of the “sensitive security information” (SSI) marking to withhold certain health and safety information from the public.  “When an industrial emergency happens and threatens the lives of residents, workers and first responders, I absolutely believe the public has the right to receive important information about what it means for them and their health,” he said. “Period.”

Strictly speaking, again, the bill (pdf) does not modify the definition of “sensitive security information” nor does it even place public health and safety considerations on an equal footing with security.  Rather, it simply prohibits the deliberate, witting abuse of the SSI control marking.

The Senate Judiciary Committee again postponed its consideration of the State Secrets Protection Act (S.417) that would limit the ability of the executive branch to terminate litigation by invoking the privilege.  Senator Orrin Hatch outlined his opposition to the bill in a floor statement last week.  “Unless serious changes are made to this legislation and the amendments offered by myself and my Republican colleagues are adopted, I cannot in good conscience vote this bill out of committee,” he warned on June 10.

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