By Joy White
Tomorrow, many of us will gather to celebrate Independence Day, the first step our nation took to becoming a democracy. In signing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson said, “This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit.”
FOIA gives everyone rights to a federal agency’s records upon request. It is a law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Under FOIA, agencies must disclose any information that is requested unless the information is protected from public disclosure. As part of the Executive Branch, the National Transportation Safety Board is mandated by Congress to make those records available to the public as appropriate. The fact is that our compliance with FOIA is an important component of our mission, Independently Advancing Transportation Safety, and our core values of transparency, accountability, integrity, diversity, and inclusion.
I started at the NTSB in 1993 working in the Office of Research and Engineering. As I reflect on my tenure here at the NTSB and the moment I began to understand the accident investigation process, I remember the first accident in which I had an opportunity to provide assistance—the crash of US Flight 427 in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania on September 8, 1994, where the entire aircraft was destroyed and no one survived. I was part of a group that had the daunting task of sorting through wreckage, personal affects, and meeting with families of the victims and other parties involved in the investigation. Little did I know that a few years later, I would move to an office to process and train other personnel to process FOIA requests. It is because of my experience working this and other accident investigations that I have an understanding for why investigators collect so much information.
What does it take to process a FOIA request for the NTSB? As you may imagine, most of those requests address our accident investigations, and our investigators are very thorough. They collect massive amounts of records, maintenance documents, licensing and certification documents, notes, audio/videotapes, photographs, as well as information from other agencies who were a party to the investigation. When forwarded to the FOIA team (my colleague Tamara Crawford and myself), we meticulously review thousands of pages to eliminate duplicates, identify sensitive and non-releasable information, and apply redactions.
To enlighten you on just how complicated a FOIA request can be, we must review all documents from 1 to over 10,000 pages submitted by our investigators, including large maps, charts, graphs, notes, thousands of photographs, and animations. We also have to assess whether exemptions preventing release would apply. In some cases, we create a log to keep track of all investigative materials received.
As a part of the FOIA team since 1997, I can say that we have come a long way when it comes to granting the public access to our records. It is our responsibility at the NTSB to serve the general public and provide openness to our investigative process. Our files are now maintained electronically, and we have purchased FOIA tracking software that helps with the redaction process and tracking the requesters. Just in Fiscal Year 2013, we received over 450 FOIA requests, most of which were the very complicated “any and all” requests; with only two FOIA analysts, electronic tools are invaluable! We have also established a Public Access Link to provide requesters with the benefit of tracking their individual request. Proactive policy changes have been made to include posting frequently requested accident documents online.
The overall goal of the NTSB FOIA process is to improve accountability and transparency. Efforts are continually being made to enhance the process and maintain the success of the program in serving the American people. In 1822, President James Madison stated, “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” I think FOIA is in keeping with those principles so well-articulated by President Madison.
Joy White is a FOIA Specialist in NTSB’s Records Management Division