As a champion of the Freedom of Information Act and a supporter of environmental causes on Capitol Hill, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been actively involved in issues near to the hearts of environmental journalists. So it was only natural that he would be invited to take part in the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference on its visit to his home state. Sen. Leahy will be a featured speaker at a session Oct. 28 titled “Government Secrecy: What We Don’t Know Can’t … .” In an e-mail interview earlier this month with TelevisionWeek correspondent Debra Kaufman, the senator shared his thoughts on the state of environmental journalism in an era when government secrecy is at what some administration critics are calling an all-time high. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.
TelevisionWeek: What is the impact of government efforts to curtail the Freedom of Information Act? Is the potential stifling of journalism a significant part of your opposition to government efforts?
Sen. Patrick Leahy: FOIA helps give meaning and muscle to the public’s right to know what their government is doing, and journalists have relied on FOIA as a vital tool in monitoring environmental issues in communities across the nation. Government agencies can be counted on to put out press releases about what they’re doing right. FOIA helps keep government accountable.
The biggest rollback in FOIA’s 40-year history was the overly broad waiver that the White House tacked onto the charter for the Department of Homeland Security. Now, just by stamping “critical infrastructure” on the top of data submitted to the government, big polluters can shield information about toxic leaks, chemical spills into rivers or lakes and other environmental offenses, shielding those disclosures from the public and from the journalists who have been the public’s watchdogs. Other FOIA changes in recent years have given the advantage to the government instead of to the public in deciding what documents can be publicly released.
That’s why I continue to push for steps to strengthen and improve FOIA. Last year Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and I introduced the OPEN Government Act, a collection of common-sense reforms to update FOIA and improve the timely processing of FOIA requests. This fall the Senate Judiciary Committee approved our bill, and we will continue to push it forward until it’s enacted.
TVWeek: You’ve also been quite outspoken in your opposition to the government’s surveillance of its citizens. Can you describe how you see the impact of government surveillance on freedom of information in general and on journalism in particular?
Sen. Leahy: One of the most complex and far-reaching new challenges we will face in the 21st century is the government’s growing use of information-gathering technology to monitor the activities of each of us as never before, compiling this information in massive databases. Some databases are being assembled by the government, but others are being outsourced to private firms.
These technologies are racing ahead faster than our society can digest and deal with their implications for our privacy. The American people would be shocked to learn how little that even Congress knows-or cares-about how these databases work or how they are used. Congressional oversight and watchdogging by reporters are essential in helping us understand these implications so we can draw appropriate boundaries, set rules and then enforce them to limit abuses.
History shows that unchecked surveillance powers risk abuses. A Senate investigation in 1975 about abuses in that era showed that government had collected information on more than 100,000 Americans, infiltrated church youth groups and even posed government investigators as reporters to spy on Americans.
Technology is a tool, and we will need to be both vigilant and diligent to remain its master, instead of the other way around.
TVWeek: What role can journalists play in today’s difficult political climate?
Sen. Leahy: The environmental challenges we face+from local decisions to global threats+are complex, and the stakes have never been higher. More than ever, the public needs the work of talented and committed journalists to report and evaluate the questions and answers that an informed public needs to understand before making decisions that will affect not only this generation but generations to come. Skilled and committed journalists are able to offer value-added reporting that helps us sort through the evidence and the competing arguments, to find those answers.
TVWeek: What do you think will be the outcome of the struggle over government surveillance of its citizens?
Sen. Leahy: Without clear rules, vigorous oversight and meaningful checks and balances, government surveillance of the public inevitably leads to abuses. I have called on Congress to hold hearings on this issue and to begin examining the many unaddressed concerns about domestic government surveillance. I also believe it’s time for the White House to convene a summit meeting on the sensitive issues raised by domestic surveillance.
TVWeek: How did your interest in protecting Lake Champlain, for example, evolve to a leadership role in the national arena?
Sen. Leahy: Vermonters have worked hard to be responsible stewards of the magnificent setting that we call home. Vermonters also have long led on environmental policy issues, putting forth leaders like Sen. Bob Stafford, R-Vt., and Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt. We are proud of this legacy and I have done what I can to honor it. That is why I have pushed for solutions to mercury pollution, farmland conservation and for establishing the successful new organic standards and labeling program. Close to home, I have made Lake Champlain one of my enduring priorities.
Nestled between the dramatic peaks of the Adirondacks and Vermont’s picturesque Green Mountains, Lake Champlain is valued all over the Northeast for its recreational, ecological and scenic values. We Vermonters sometimes affectionately refer to it as the “Sixth Great Lake.” I have secured more than $70 million in federal funding to clean up and protect Lake Champlain.
I’m also proud that Vermont has been a model for many of the national conservation programs that I have sponsored, such as the Farmland Protection Program and the Forest Legacy Program. Programs such as these demonstrate that when Vermont landowners and citizens are given the right information and resources, they can meet their responsibility to protect Vermont land and resources for future generations.
TVWeek: What are some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the American public today, and what role is the U.S. Senate playing in these issues?
Sen. Leahy: Mercury pollution has been the last major toxic [substance] without an effective control regimen, and that is why I have continued to work to find solutions. Global warming is the largest and perhaps the most difficult environmental policy challenge that we face today. This fall I was proud to join Sen. Jeffords in introducing his Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2006, which for the first time would set the United States on a path to decrease and, in time, reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. I also support an aggressive carbon emission cap-and-trade program to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and create a market for clean energy production. It is also clear that neither Vermont nor the United States can act in a vacuum. And if we’re going to reassert our leadership on climate change+which I think we must+we also have to re-engage internationally, to bring about pollution improvements across the globe.
TVWeek: Global warming seems to be the most politicized environmental issue of the day, and some journalists, such as Tom Brokaw, have been criticized by the administration for “not being balanced” when speaking about global warming. What can+and should+journalists do when writing about such hot-button topics as global warming?
Sen. Leahy: It only stands to reason that human activity over the last century has contributed to threats to
the thin envelope of atmosphere that surrounds our planet and to the Earth’s fragile ecosystems. We cannot afford any more delay in beginning to find and implement workable answers to the threat of global climate change. A debate on these issues finally seems to be beginning, and journalists can help a lay audience understand the evidence and the competing arguments that will help us identify the best solutions.
Unfortunately, uncovering the facts has sometimes gotten more difficult, in the midst of what some have termed this administration’s “war on science.” Government scientists have sometimes been gagged, and scientific data+including data on environmental issues+has been suppressed or distorted. Earlier this year top Bush administration officials attempted to silence James Hansen, the top NASA climate scientist, from speaking and publishing his conclusions about the need for immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that are leading to global warming.
And in another well-documented case, the White House tried to make a series of changes to the EPA’s draft Report on the Environment by forcing the EPA to substantially alter the report’s section on climate change. The EPA report had concluded that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change.
Well-grounded journalism on environmental issues can help explain how government meddling with scientific data affects us all.
TVWeek: What do you believe the future holds for protection of the environment?
Sen. Leahy: Environmental protection used to be a bipartisan effort. We need a change of direction to get back to constructive, bipartisan oversight and initiative to act on the lengthening backlog of pressing environmental issues that have been deferred for far too long. Over the last few years we have seen attempt after attempt in Congress and in the administration to roll back nearly every environmental law+from the bedrock National Environmental Policy Act to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Powerful interests and lobbyists like oil industry executives have been invited to rewrite our national energy policy. It’s time to open those back-room doors and let the public back into the process.