Today we present an interview with Jason Gart, Vice President and Director of Litigation Research at History Associates Incorporated (HAI) 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 work at a consultancy that provides historical research and analysis to corporate and government clients and their counsel in support of legal matters, regulatory compliance, and public relations. As part of my day job, I have overseen the submission of hundreds of commercial FOIA requests as well as numerous local Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Successfully navigating the complexities of the FOIA system, such as insuring that FOIA officers undertake a search of agency records that may be stored at Federal Records Centers, can be time consuming and, in some cases, exasperating. At the same time, however, it is incumbent upon all of us that use the system to help improve it if the opportunity arises. I have been enormously impressed with my colleagues on the committee, which includes representatives of the New York Times, the American Bar Association, and four academic institutions as well as members from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others. I am hopeful that we will have an extremely productive term.
What do you hope to accomplish?
My colleagues and I on the Technology Subcommittee are focused on finding technology-driven solutions that can improve or streamline the FOIA process. Ultimately we want agencies to be more efficient in their release of FOIA records and to improve transparency. One way this can be done is by leveraging, as needed, new or emerging technologies for the processing, tracking, redaction, and searching of responsive records. Like almost everything in life, however, it is a complicated question as we are finding little standardization across the 15 Cabinet-level departments and 103 independent agencies that make up the FOIA community. One early thought is to have the Technology Subcommittee perhaps serve as a clearinghouse and provide best practice or consensus recommendations on baseline functionality for new technology solutions that might be procured from the open marketplace.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
For more than 50 years FOIA has provided any person (both citizens and those from outside the United States) with the right to access U.S. government records. One challenge faced by every requester (journalists, academics, and commercial requesters alike) is responsiveness. Those in the legal community, for example, might be using FOIA to gain records that might help determine if a valid legal claim exists in order to litigate a federal or state environmental matter, procurement or insurance coverage dispute, or even a toxic tort [claims] case. Although federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, the actual release of records may take months, and in some cases years. The legal calendar and the FOIA calendar are rarely aligned, and this can adversely impact those seeking justice in the courts. I believe in 2018 there were upward of 850,000 FOIA requests submitted. It has become a classic example of a system that has been overloaded by its own success, and it is incumbent upon us to meet this challenge head-on.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
One of the chapters in my doctoral dissertation focused on the Cold War-era development of an airborne reconnaissance platform now known as synthetic aperture radar. At the time it was a highly classified defense project—the technology ultimately found its way into both U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft—and in researching the topic, I submitted numerous FOIA requests to an array of federal defense and intelligence agencies. One of the document releases I received inadvertently included, intermixed with photocopies, several pages of original 1950s-era documents un-redacted with the red TOP SECRET stamp. I returned the documents to the FOIA officer, but it was neat to hold the original pages for a day or two.