Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Lauren Harper

Today we present an interview with Lauren Harper, Director of Public Policy at the National Security Archive, 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’ve been lucky enough to work at the National Security Archive for over a decade, and in that time, I’ve seen what can happen when FOIA works the way it was intended. I’ve seen my colleagues use FOIA-released documents in the most remarkable ways. Some have presented the documents as evidence in international trials against dictators, like the one that led to the conviction of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for human rights abuses, while others have used FOIA to obtain key records on the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve also had the chance to work with OGIS and different FOIA offices quite a bit in my role as policy director for the Archive, and I’ve followed the Advisory Committee’s work since it first began. The Committee offers such a unique opportunity for dialogue on the FOIA issues we are all passionate about, and I hope I can provide a unique and enthusiastic perspective—and learn as much as I can along the way.

What do you hope to accomplish from this experience? 

My goals are partly selfish. I’m really looking forward to gaining a greater understanding of the diverse perspectives and challenges faced by my Committee colleagues working in government. There are so many good ideas and good practices in different FOIA shops, and it benefits everyone if we can talk about the successes, as well as the pitfalls, candidly. I’m also hoping that my experience as a requester, especially one who has conducted quite a few government-wide FOIA audits and regularly visits dozens of agency FOIA websites, can help inform discussions on everything from FOIA portals to proactive disclosures. 

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

The Archive primarily submits FOIA requests for historical records that discuss foreign policy and national security issues, so my perspective is biased towards the intersection of FOIA and national security classified information. We know the current classification system is out of control, too many documents are born classified, and multiple agencies reviewing the same 20- or 30-year-old document line-by-line often come to different conclusions as to what may be released. The process takes way too long and often does not lead to common-sense declassification decisions. On top of this, there is no effective automatic declassification program for older records. For FOIA to succeed, it needs to not be hampered by an overzealous and outdated classification system, and it needs to be bolstered by a robust, tech-savvy records management and preservation system.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience.

It’s hard to choose, so I’m going to cheat a bit and pick two. The first is being one of many NSArchive employees who helped publish one of our most recent digital declassified document collections, The Afghanistan War and the United States, 1998-2017. The collection includes over 2,200 documents, primarily obtained through FOIA requests that had been sent to the State Department, various U.S. embassies, U.S. Central Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and many other agencies. My second favorite experience was pulling together 50 of the biggest news stories made possible by FOIA the same year that FOIA turned 50. To me this was a great way to show that FOIA has the potential to inform on just about any subject matter—from archaeology and food safety to critical foreign policy issues.