Former PIDB Member Steven Garfinkel passes

Former PIDB member and ISOO Director Steven Garfinkel (1945-2018), died on September 24, 2018, aged 73.

Garfinkel entered government service with a distinguished academic record, after attending both George Washington University and its Law School as a Trustee Scholar. In 1970, he received his J.D. (with honors, Law Review), three years after receiving his B.A. (with distinction, PBK).

Following law school, Garfinkel served for almost 10 years in the Office of General Counsel of the General Services Administration (GSA), which in the 1970s still managed the National Archives as the National Archives and Records Service (NARS). His positions in that office included chief counsel for NARS, chief counsel for information and privacy, and chief counsel for civil rights.

In 1974, while serving in GSA’s Office of General Counsel, and in the wake of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, Garfinkel participated in drafting the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), which placed records relating to the abuse of governmental power by President Nixon and White House staff under custody of the National Archives to process for public access.

In May 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Garfinkel to serve as ISOO’s second director, succeeding Michael Blouin, who in 1978 served in the founding of ISOO.  In 1984, after Congress established the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an independent agency, Garfinkel continued as ISOO Director until he stepped down in December 2001.

As Director of ISOO, Garfinkel played a critical role in drafting Executive Order 12958, which established the first requirements for the automatic declassification of national security information, issued by President Bill Clinton, on April 17, 1995.  At that time, Garfinkel said, “The big thing about the new executive order is that the burden has shifted 180° in terms of maintaining the classified status of information.” In the past, in order to declassify information, an agency had to commit resources to the process of document review. “Now,” he stressed, “if an agency does nothing, information will be declassified.”

Garfinkel continued in public service even as he departed ISOO.  From 2000 to 2006, he chaired the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG), the vast declassification initiative to implement the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998.  Under Garfinkel’s agile stewardship, this landmark effort became the largest congressionally-mandated, single-subject declassification effort in history.

The records publicly released shed important historical light on the Holocaust and other war crimes – as well as the U.S. Government’s involvement with war criminals during the Cold War – while furthering Garfinkel’s lifelong goal of greater government transparency.  “Historians, political scientists, journalists, novelist, students, and other researchers will use the records the IWG has brought to light for many decades to come,” wrote Garfinkel in the IWG final report, which demonstrated “that disaster does not befall America when intelligence agencies declassify old intelligence operations records.”

From 2004 to 2008, appointed by President George W. Bush, he served a four-year term as a PIDB Member, contributing to the PIDB Report to the President on Improving Declassification (2007).

In 2004, Garfinkel received a master’s degree in teaching from Towson University.  After retiring from government, he followed his passion to teach history and government to high school students in Montgomery County, Maryland.

In the scope of his activities, and the focus of his commitment to public service, Garfinkel remains an inspiration to the PIDB staff.  Even as we lament his passing, we celebrate his legacy in supporting PIDB’s mandate and in advancing the work of ISOO.


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