Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Luke Nichter

Today we present an interview with Luke Nichter, Professor of History and James H. Cavanaugh Endowed Chair in Presidential Studies at Chapman University and a member of the 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 who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.

What prompted you to seek appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee?

I sought an appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee for two reasons. As a member of the requester community, I make regular use of FOIA and many of those records end up being used in my publications. Serving on the Committee will help to expand my knowledge of the process as well as understanding the agency perspective. In addition, I am happy to share my FOIA experiences with anyone willing to listen!

What do you hope to accomplish from this experience? 

I think I preempted this question in my answer to the previous one.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

FOIA’s biggest challenge is adapting a 20th-century vision to 21st-century reality. Many FOIA offices do not have the budgetary or personnel resources to cope with the ever-expanding volume of requests. There are ways to mitigate these challenges, but only partially. We need to better educate requesters about the process, the agency perspective, and crafting better requests. But there is also the challenge of a very decentralized system and many records that are not responsive to FOIA. It is difficult to talk about “freedom of information” with so many hurdles to “freedom.”

Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience. 

My favorite experience has been getting to know the talented people at the agencies that process my requests. One that comes to mind is the Information Management Division at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and navigating some interesting Cold War-era records. However, my all-time favorite has been working with the Special Access/FOIA Division at the National Archives and Records Administration. I’ve gotten to know some of the staff reasonably well. One of them, who will remain nameless, once paid me the greatest FOIA compliment I’ve ever received: on the FOIA continuum, I’m closer to “super user” than “FOIA nut.” I’ll take it!