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Security chief: Openness depends on access professionals

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Dec 13, 2001    

Security chief: Openness depends on access professionals

  • The retiring head of the Information Security Oversight Office told federal freedom-of-information officers this week that the public’s ability to access its government pivots on their own beliefs about open government.

Steven Garfinkel, retiring director of the federal office that oversees government classification efforts, told federal Freedom of Information personnel on Dec. 11 that an agency’s reputation for openness reflects the personalities of its access professionals far more than it hinges upon the language of the law.

In what he called a valedictory address, Garfinkel, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, told the American Society of Access Professionals during its annual symposium that he learned early in his career that some agencies were far more likely to be in court than others.

“The attorneys and information officers at some agencies clearly believed in the American public’s right to know, unless disclosure presented a clear threat to the national interest,” he said. “They communicated closely with FOIA requesters, and almost always these actions resolved themselves amicably.

“At other agencies, the access professionals just as clearly believed that it was their job, in fact their duty, to support and defend the withholding of as much information as was possible. They viewed FOIA requesters as the enemy and almost never communicated with them in a non-adversarial manner.”

Garfinkel plans to retire from the position he helped create 21 years ago to improve government classification and declassification efforts. Before that he had worked on FOI issues in general counsel offices in other agencies.

Garfinkel said most government agencies, within only a few years of the FOI Act’s enactment, established reputations as either pro or anti-openness. He cited the departments of Defense and State as agencies which supported openness early on, and the departments of Agriculture and Treasury as less open.

In most instances, he said, it was not the law that created those impressions, but the individuals inside those agencies handling requests and appeals.

Referring to FOI memoranda issued by current and past attorneys general, Garfinkel said, “You know what? The Janet Reno memorandum is all but meaningless. The John Ashcroft memorandum is all but meaningless. What you do every day on the job is what is truly meaningful in the area of access to government information.”

During the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, Garfinkel coordinated efforts to reduce over-classification of government records and was instrumental in the drafting of the 1995 Executive Order which changed classification procedures.

He said that he “never wavered” in his commitment to protecting secrets that safeguard the American government and its people and that he had protected “every bit” of classified information entrusted to him.

But he said that he leaves government equally proud of the unprecedented declassification accomplishments over the past seven years.

“No one can be expected to take secrecy seriously if far too much information that is no longer sensitive remains classified,” he said, pointing out that a successful and credible classification and safeguarding program only exists alongside a credible declassification program.

“Long after all of us have been forgotten, these hundreds of millions of pages of declassified records will still be telling the story of our government and our nation,” he said.


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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