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Congressional Record: March 15, 2001 (Senate)
Page S2383-S2384

                             FOIA TURNS 35

  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, James Madison said that if men were angels, 
no government would be necessary. But because people and governments 
are fallible, he added, ``experience has taught mankind the necessity 
of auxiliary precautions.'' The Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), a 
modern improvement in American government, has proved itself as a vital 
precaution that has served the people well in defending their right to 
know what their government is doing--or not doing. Friday is the 250th 
birthday of James Madison and, appropriately, this is also the day that 
we commemorate FOIA's 35th anniversary.
  I am not sure that we could pass FOIA if it were offered in Congress 
today, but thank heaven it is firmly etched by now in our national 
culture. Just this month a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed FOIA's 
mandate of broad disclosure, noting that full agency disclosure would 
``help ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a 
democratic society.''
  FOIA may be an imperfect tool, but as one foreign journalist 
observed, ``in

[[Page S2384]]

its klutzy way, it has become one of the slender pillars that make 
America the most open of modern societies.''
  In recent years records released under FOIA have revealed the 
government's radiation experiments on human guinea pigs during the Cold 
War, the evidence that the Food and Drug Administration had about 
heart-valve disease at the time it approved the Fen-Phen diet drug, the 
Federal Aviation Administration's concerns about ValuJet before the 
1996 crash in the Everglades, radiation contamination by a government-
run uranium processing plant on nearby recreation and wildlife areas in 
Kentucky, the government's maltreatment of South Vietnamese commandos 
who fought in a CIA-sponsored army in the early 1960's, the high 
salaries paid to independent counsels, and the unsafe lead content of 
tap water in the nation's capital.
  Five years ago we updated FOIA's charter with the Electronic Freedom 
of Information Act that I proposed as a way to bring the law into the 
information age, recognizing that technology is dramatically changing 
the way government handles and stores information. The ``E-FOIA'' law 
directs federal agencies to make the information in their computer 
files available to citizens on the same basis as that in conventional 
paper files. We also took this as an opportunity to encourage agencies 
to use technology and the Internet to make government more accessible 
and accountable to its customers, the citizens. For instance, we now 
have the technology to translate government records into Braille 
or large print or synthetic speech for people with sight or hearing 
impairments, and the new law promotes that. Electronic records also 
make it possible to offer dial-up access to citizens over the Internet 
so they can have instant direct access to unclassified information 
stored in government computer banks. This is far easier for Vermonters 
than having to travel to Washington to visit an agency's public reading 
room. Information is a valuable commodity, and the federal government 
is the largest single producer and repository of data on topics ranging 
from agriculture to geography to labor statistics and the weather. 
Better and timelier access to this information helps lubricate our 

  FOIA today is healthy, but only constant vigilance will keep Congress 
from needlessly whittling away its promise to the American people. We 
fought back one such effort last year, and new carve-out proposals are 
already in the air.
  FOIA gives each American the power to ask--and the government the 
obligation to answer--questions about official actions or inaction. We 
can count on a government agency to tell us when it does something 
right, but we need FOIA to help tell us when it does something wrong. 
Of all the laws that fill our law libraries, none better than FOIA 
breathes life into the first words in our Constitution, ``We the people 
of the United States'' and into our First Amendment rights to petition 
our government. This is a law to celebrate, to use, and to defend.


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