Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Thomas Susman

Thomas Susman, Director of the Governmental Affairs Office at the American Bar Association. August 25, 2011. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Today we present an interview with Thomas M. Susman, Director of the Governmental Affairs Office of the American Bar Association (ABA) 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?

I have been committed to enhancing access to government information for my entire professional career. That includes not only working toward strengthening the statute, but also improving administration of this critical law. The FOIA Advisory Committee has a diverse representation from both inside and outside government. This provides a perfect forum for exploring ideas, evaluating agency performance, assessing proposals to make administration more efficient and cost-effective, and developing recommendations on how to make the law work better for both the public and the government. My experience as a member of the two prior FOIA Advisory Committees taught me the value of this collaborative process, and I’m especially enthusiastic about our current focus on implementing the recommendations of the prior Advisory Committees as well as developing new proposals.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The prior Advisory Committees made some terrific recommendations that need to be put into practice. I’m delighted that this committee has made implementation of these recommendations a priority. At the same time, the very technologies that have made much of the work most of us do faster, easier, and cheaper also introduce complexities – and difficulties – into record-keeping and retention. These in turn raise barriers to and impose new costs to implementing the FOIA under the traditional request-and-response approach. Continued focus on records management, technology, resources, training, and proactive disclosure mechanisms will provide useful recommendations to help surmount these barriers.

I would be remiss not to mention my hope that we will continue efforts to strengthen OGIS, which I believe holds special promise in helping all agencies across government understand and address the challenges they face in faithfully implementing the FOIA.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

I’ve worked on access issues at the state level and find that often those administering freedom of information laws lack a commitment to the objective of those laws and fail to see the benefits to the public of greater government transparency. That is not the problem at the federal level where, during the over 50 years of working with the FOIA, federal employees have developed a professionalism and shared commitment to implementation that is requester-friendly. Yet two challenges remain: First, developing processes and protocols and providing resources that enable access professionals to do their work efficiently and effectively. And, second, inculcating political appointees with a higher level of awareness of the benefits to their agencies and to the nation of a well-oiled FOIA machine.

What was my favorite FOIA moment?

I have two answers: The first was when the vote count was announced for the Senate override of the 1974 Amendments. I was the principal Senate staffer working on FOIA legislation on the Judiciary Committee and had been involved in failed negotiations with the Ford administration on the proposed legislation that precipitated the President’s veto. The House had already decisively voted to override the veto, even after President Ford sent a letter promising to support a set of amendments that were credible, though substantially weaker than those in the ’74 Amendments. We knew the vote would be close; it turned out that the veto was overridden by a single vote. (The final vote count reflected a two-vote margin of victory, but we were later told that Minority Leader Hugh Scott had told the White House that he would oppose the override if his vote would make the difference.) It was a glorious end to a five-year effort by a number of Members and staff to put teeth in what had been a weak statute.

The second “FOIA moment” for me was receiving a response to my request for Department of Justice records relating to my father, who had been a DOJ trial lawyer in the 1930s. The personnel and case records documented how my Dad, a Connecticut Yankee, wound up in Houston, Texas. I won’t tell the full story here, but he died when I was only six, and I never learned the details of his years in the Department and the assignment that led him to Houston until I read those documents. It was a moving experience for me to learn through original documents of that important and previously missing piece of my family’s history.