Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Kristin Ellis

A Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation taking the one hundred millionth fingerprint, represented by Miss Margaret O’Brien, a movie star., ca. 1947. (National Archives Identifier 518186)

Today we present an interview with Kristin Ellis, Associate General Counsel and Unit Chief of the FOIA Litigation Unit (FLU), Office of the General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and a member of the 2020-2022 FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government and who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.

Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?

Since my focus has primarily been FOIA litigation for over a decade now, I have not spent a lot of time on bigger picture FOIA issues. But ultimately those issues directly impact the litigation aspect of FOIA in many respects. When the opportunity to participate in the FOIA Advisory Committee (FAC) came up, I had conversations with Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director Alina Semo and with FBI FOIA executives about the Committee and what I might be able to contribute. Considering the size of the FBI’s FOIA program, the wide variety of issues, records, and exemptions we handle, and the amount of FOIA litigation I have been involved in, I felt I would bring a potentially unique perspective to the Committee.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I am not sure I have an answer at this point. One of the things I am finding most rewarding is the breadth of perspectives the Committee members bring to the table.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

From my perspective, there are two and they are largely related. The sheer volume of information generated/maintained by and accessible within agencies has become staggering. Where just 10 years ago, it was unusual for a FOIA request to the FBI to generate tens of thousands of responsive pages, it is now relatively commonplace for requests to generate that volume or even substantially more (into the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pages). Agency FOIA resources (human, financial, technological) have often not kept pace with these substantially increased workloads. 

Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.

I do not know if I have a “favorite” moment. Working in FOIA at the FBI has been the most rewarding experience in my career. I get to work with incredibly talented and dedicated individuals who are on the front lines of carrying out the FBI’s law enforcement, national security, and intelligence mission, and in my small way, contribute to their and the FBI’s ability to protect and defend the Constitution. I have worked on cases involving records of significant immediate public interest, but also on cases involving historic records that provide a fascinating glimpse into the agency and culture of the time, and everything in between.