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Louise Slaughter Slams Effort to Amend FOIA to Shield Abuse Photos

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) today blasted the Obama administration, as well as some of her colleagues in the House and Senate, for including a provision in the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill that would amend the Freedom of Information Act to exempt from disclosure photos depicting the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.

After the jump, Slaughter’s full remarks made this morning on the House floor about why FOIA should not be amended and the photos should not be concealed.

There are few things that say more about our country and our trust in the public’s right to know than the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s one of the most powerful statements of openness and transparency we have. It affords ordinary people the ability to peer behind the curtains of power and see inside the many bureaucracies that define the federal, state and local governments in this country.

It’s a symbol for all that despite anything else that our government does in the name of the people, there should be no secrets.

Over the years, FOIA laws have been used for a wide range of purposes. FOIA helped us discover the ugly truth about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the 1960′s. And FOIA was also used to uncover data showing that Ford Pintos were built with serious fuel

system defects that made them more prone to fire and explosions.

In some ways, FOIA is simply a reminder to the public that there is an avenue to pursue if they believe the government is keeping secrets. At the heart of FOIA is the concept that the people’s right to know is more important than the government’s desire to keep things secret.

The FOIA laws in this country have enabled reporters and citizens from all spectrums access to information that otherwise might never see the light of day.

Signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, FOIA laws allow for the full or partial disclosure of information and documents with only a narrow list of exemptions.

So it was with some dismay when we learned recently that the House and Senate conferees on the Homeland Security appropriations bill had slipped in a provision that gives the government the option of making old photos of detainee abuse exempt from FOIA laws.

This case has already followed a lengthy path, beginning with a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Pentagon. Last spring, when it appeared that the lawsuit might go against the government, this Administration responded by asking some members of the House and Senate to insert language into legislation to make sure the photos stay secret.

Joining the ACLU against the Pentagon was the American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Cable News Network, Inc., the E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Co., Inc., the Hearst Corporation, Military Reporters and Editors, the National Press Club, NBC Universal, Inc., the New York Times Company, the Newspaper Association of America, the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and The Washington Post.

Never mind that the photos in question likely have very little value, given that a similar set of photos showing abuse were released under the Bush Administration. Despite some complaints that releasing the photos would put servicemen and women in danger, the fact is there was absolutely no increase in violence or attacks after the previous detainee photos were released. My guess is that if we were to release new photos the result would be the same.

And many observers argue that releasing the photos was actually a clear break from the abuses of the past – and a signal to our allies and everyone else that the days of this type of detainee mistreatment were over and that the United States is willing to come to terms with its past practices.

In June, I and other House leaders prevailed and the FOIA exemption was dropped from legislation.

However, the conferees – apparently under direct orders from the Administration – quietly put it back into the bill this month.

It’s hard for me to express how disappointed I am with that decision. I am sorry because I believe that we had turned a page from the cloud of suspicion and secrecy that marked the previous Administration. It runs so counter to our principals and stated desire to reject the abuses of the past. The FOIA laws in this country form a pillar of our First Amendment principals.

It’s unfortunate given that this Administration promised that openness and transparency would be the norm. We should never do anything to circumvent FOIA and I believe that our country would gain more by coming to terms with the past than we would by covering it up. I hope that the President will follow judicial rulings and consider voluntarily releasing these photos so we can put this chapter in history behind us.

Update: C-SPAN has video of Slaughter’s remarks, which begin shortly after the 50-minute mark here.

2nd Update: Here‘s the video.

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