About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee

Good morning and welcome to the fifth meeting of the 2020 to 2022 term of the federal Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee. I join you once again from my office at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, DC. 

This Committee is one of four active federal advisory committees that provide countless hours of advice and guidance to the National Archives on a wide range of issues that touch federal records and information oversight.

Two days from now, we Americans will observe the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, events that forever changed the fabric of our nation. September 11th sparked countless FOIA requests to agencies large and small, from the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration to the State Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology among many others.

Although the records of the independent and bipartisan 9/11 Commission are not subject to FOIA because the Commission was part of the legislative branch, the National Archives has legal custody of the Commission’s 570 cubic feet of records.

Many remain classified but are the subject of an Executive Order the president signed last week directing the Justice Department and other agencies to review, declassify and release documents related to the FBI’s 9/11 investigations. Not classified and publicly available online in the National Archives Catalog are summaries of more than 1,200 fact-finding interviews conducted by 9/11 Commission staff. As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, I invite you all to visit the Catalog at catalog.archives.gov where you can access these and many other permanent records of the U.S. government.

Since the last FOIA Advisory Committee meeting in June, the National Archives has added to the Catalog a “Harmful Language Alert” to advise users that historical records and their descriptions may contain harmful wording reflecting outdated, biased, offensive and possibly violent views and opinions. The National Archives is working with staff, communities, and peer institutions to assess and update descriptions that are harmful and to establish standards and policies to prevent future harmful language in staff-generated descriptions.

That work is the direct result of a Task Force on Racism that I convened in 2020 to identify and recommend solutions to issues stemming from structural racism within the agency.

As the keeper of this nation’s founding documents, we have a special responsibility to the ideals that all people are created equal, that all people have equal protection under the law, and that there is a common good that includes us all. More information, including the task force’s final report, is available at archives.gov.

When the FOIA Advisory Committee last met, local public health metrics were allowing the re-opening of many of our federal records centers and presidential museums and libraries in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, local public health metrics across the nation are forcing us to close or cut back on physical access to many facilities to protect the health and safety of visitors, customers, and employees during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Here at the National Archives flagship building, we are still able to allow viewing of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to those who reserve timed-entry tickets on reservations.gov.

As we look to the past and observe the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is helpful to remember this great nation’s resilience. That resilience will continue to serve us all as we weather the ongoing pandemic.

Stay safe and be well. I now turn the meeting over to Committee chairperson Alina Semo.