Freedom of Information Act helps Nichter with research
By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
Sunshine Week, which began Sunday and concludes today, is an annual national initiative that promotes awareness of open government and freedom of information.
The importance of the week, and of transparency in government in general, is not lost on Luke Nichter, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas.
“In a healthy democracy, we need to hold our public officials accountable,” he said. “Part of that is the right to transparency and openness in government.”
Nichter is more familiar with the ins-and-outs of public records law than most. He specializes in 20th century U.S. political history, and has spent many years studying the 1960s and 1970s with a particular interest in Richard Nixon’s presidency.
In addition to penning a scholarly book on the late president, Nichter also runs Nixontapes.org, a digitized archive of thousands of recordings of phone calls and meetings that Nixon secretly recorded in the executive offices between 1971 and 1973.
Those recordings played a major role in the scandal and subsequent investigation surrounding the Watergate Hotel break-in, and Nixon’s eventual resignation from office.
“As a historian, what I’m interested in doing is looking at what we don’t know,” he said. “This (Watergate) has been called the greatest political scandal in American history, and 40 years later we still don’t know why the break-in happened.”
His scholarly pursuits have made Nichter a de facto expert in open records law, particularly the federal Freedom of Information Act, which allows ordinary citizens to petition the government and its agencies to release information.
“I don’t know how many FOIA requests I’ve made, but it’s easily in the hundreds,” said Nichter. “I have (unfilled requests) dating back as late as 2005.”
Wait for information
Basic information, like budgets and reports, is usually easy to access for most citizens.
But Nichter’s research often requires documents that have been classified and sealed by government agencies or presidential museums — making it both challenging and time consuming to get those agencies to provide the materials he’s looking for.
“When you are talking about something classified, or presidential records, then you need to be ready to be in for the long haul,” he said. “You are looking at a wait of up to five years. There are even requests that take 10 or 20 years; it all depends on the agency.”
The sheer number of agencies is another obstacle for anyone seeking such records. Each agency has its own rules for submitting and approving records requests.
“Just in the intelligence community alone, there are at least 38 different agencies,” said Nichter. “That gives you an idea as to what you’re dealing with.”
Even if the information isn’t classified, the number of requests can hinder the process. According to foia.gov, the U.S. government’s open information website, there was backlog of 83,490 requests in 2011. That same year, the government received more than 644,000 requests under FOIA.
For Nichter, patience is a virtue when it comes to getting the records he needs for the information he seeks to bring to light.
In February, Washington, D.C., District Court Judge Royce Lamberth gave the government 30 days to respond to a petition by Nichter asking that sealed court records related to the U.S.’s case against G. Gordon Liddy be unsealed. The order came after more than three years of Nichter’s corresponding with the judge.
“Sometimes, you have to figure out what is the most effective way,” he said. “In this case the easiest route was to make friends with a powerful judge in Washington.”
That “easier” route still took years, and as of Friday the government hadn’t responded to Lamberth’s order; leaving Nichter to wait just a little longer for the records he’s been trying to access since 2009.
Worth the time
Despite the long waits and the frustration inherent in navigating federal public records law, Nichter said the work was worth it, and encouraged others to know their rights when it comes to learning more about what their government and public officials were doing.
“Every citizen has a right to know what their government does. You don’t always have a right to know everything, but you have a right to know something,” Nichter said. “There should be no dark corners where our government operates.”
Contact Chris McGuinness at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.