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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Brenda S. Reger

FOIA Update
Vol. VI, No. 1

FOIA Focus: Brenda S. Reger

In the federal government there are a few "hybrid" agencies under the FOIA, in that they are subject to the FOIA as regards only some of their functions. The National Security Council is such a bifurcated agency. The Council itself is an advisory body created by the National Security Act of 1947 to assist the President on national security policy matters. Among its statutory members and advisors are the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of Central Intelligence. The NSC staff works most directly with the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, a presidential advisor who is part of the NSC system at the President's direction rather than as a statutory member.

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"All our documents are handled on a two-track type of operation," says Brenda S. Reger, Director of the NSC Office of Policy and Security Review, which handles Freedom of Information requests at the Council. "One track is for agency documents, while any Presidential records are handled separately. The presidential records are not yet subject to the FOIA.

"When the Council functions as White House staff, any documents generated are presidential records and are eventually placed in the appropriate presidential library under the custody of the National Archives," Reger explains. "This has been true since the Council was created during the Truman Administration, long before there was a FOIA. When the staff are included in formulating or implementing NSC directives, the documents generated are agency records subject to the FOIA.

"As an agency, we don't generate many documents compared to, say, Defense," she continues. "But due to the nature of the Council, most of the records we create concern the highest level foreign relations policy, intelligence and national defense matters, and are classified."

The staff at the NSC consists of approximately 50 professionals, and a corresponding number of support personnel, who work at the direction of the President and his National Security Advisor. Due to the volume of FOIA requests received, six of these positions are now filled by Reger and her team of document analysts.

"Over the past two years, we have had a 97% increase in the number of FOIA requests received," says Reger. "We now receive approximately 800 per year. And we also receive an equal number of requests from presidential libraries for mandatory review of classified information," she adds.

"Until two years ago we were very current. Now, needless to say, we have a big backlog of FOIA requests," says Reger. "Most of our records are interagency documents. This means that, in addition to reviewing the records ourselves, we refer many of them to other involved agencies for concurrence since we can't declassify another agency's information. This is a very time-consuming process."

Being a special agency, the NSC has some atypical constraints in handling FOIA matters. "Since we are part of the White House security complex, we never meet with requesters in our office," notes Reger. "Of course we do speak with them over. the telephone," she adds. "The security system also precludes having a reading room in the building so we send copies of all documents we declassify to the National Archives."

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Raised in the southwest, Brenda Reger majored in history and political science in college and received an M.A. in history from Northern Arizona University. Upon her graduation in 1969, she was hired as an archivist by the National Archives to work at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. As an archivist, she performed declassification reviews of documents concerning former President Eisenhower's military career and his presidential years.

In 1972, opportunity beckoned and Reger moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a Branch Chief of the Declassification Unit at the National Archives. With a staff of 45, she supervised a systematic review program to declassify records from World War II. Her unit also handled FOIA requests and other requests for mandatory declassification review of World War II documents.

In April of 1980, Reger was detailed to the NSC as its Director of Freedom of Information. In May of 1983, she was made part of the permanent staff, an action that is unusual at the NSC, where most of the senior staff are on temporary detail or on leave from the academic or business communities.

"I was about 10 years old when I decided that I wanted to be an archivist when I grew up," recalls Reger. "A friend of my father was an archivist at a county historical society in Arizona. I thought it would be fun to be in charge of records about Wyatt Earp, Tombstone Territory, and cowboys and Indians. My brother shared the same interest. He now owns the Wells Fargo Museum in Tombstone, Arizona."

Indeed, at the NSC, Reger has some enviable tasks. In addition to her normal duties which keep her up to date on all current foreign affairs matters, Reger also performs prepublication security clearance reviews of books written by former government officials. She recently reviewed the manuscripts of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's Power and Principle, as well as Henry Kissinger's Years of Upheaval.

Reger's desire to be an archivist has led her to a responsible position in which attempting to cope with the National Security Council's skyrocketing docket of FOIA requests has become perhaps her biggest challenge. "We're doing the best we can," she sums up, "but its difficult when you suddenly receive such an increase in FOIA requests, especially for extremely sensitive records."

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Updated August 13, 2014