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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Georgene S. Cassels

FOIA Update
Vol. VI, No. 3

FOIA Focus:  Georgene S. Cassels

At various levels of the federal government there are employees who have developed specialized expertise in one facet or another of Freedom of Information Act administration, such as administrative processing of requests, document review or litigation. One significant aspect of work in the FOIA/Privacy Act area is that it provides considerable career mobility for government employees who are motivated and who are capable of assuming increased responsibilities. It is not unusual for persons who have entered federal government service as secretaries or clerks to be promoted to paralegal specialist or legal technician positions within their agencies' FOIA/Privacy Act operations. With their enthusiasm for document disclosure work and their special knowledge and skills, these upwardly mobile employees make an essential contribution to the administration of federal access statutes.

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"When I receive a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act or Privacy Act, my first priority is to define the parameters of the request and the necessary search," says Georgene S. Cassels, a paralegal specialist in the Department of State's Foreign Affairs Management Center. She works with 12 other paralegals in the State Department's main document disclosure office.

"Since we are the central office for handling FOIA/PA requests," Cassels points out, "we will initiate searches of different file systems in the Central Foreign Policy Files, the various area bureaus, or at State Department posts anywhere in the world."

At times, Cassels will telephone a requester to ask him or her to narrow the scope of a request. For example, if a requester seeks all records on United States/Cuban relations, she may ask if the specific interest is military, political, or economic. She also asks requesters to narrow the time period of records sought, wherever possible. "I work with them until I get a reasonable description of what we can search for," explains Cassels.

"I also ask myself whether I have a valid request for information," she continues. "If an individual says that he is requesting State Department records on behalf of a third party, I have to verify that this is truly the case."

The State Department has worked hard to improve its FOIA operations in recent years, even as it has received increasing numbers of access requests.

"There used to be a two-year waiting period for searches conducted in our Central Foreign Policy files," says Cassels. "Now, due to the installation of improved computer programs, we have reduced the waiting time to six months."

One particular administrative change helped bring about this tremendous improvement:  Each document disclosure paralegal at State now has his or her own designated areas of expertise, such as Iranian-Iraqi affairs, chemical warfare, or arms sales to the Middle East.

Personally, Cassels' most significant contribution was in her discovery of the "McCloy documents."

John J. McCloy was the United States High Commissioner of the special organization created by the United States, England, France and the Soviet Union to govern Germany following World War II. In the early 1980's, however, the historians researching this era were unable to find any records generated by this important governing body after 1949. Their many FOIA requests to the State Department were unsatisfied simply because no one knew where such records were, if indeed they still existed.

But Cassels came across a few of these FOIA requests and decided to investigate further. "I really sympathized with these requesters," she recalls. "Most of them were scholars researching their doctoral dissertations or were biographers. I knew that these McCloy documents were valuable, historical records and they just had to be in storage somewhere."

Sure enough, after many months of persistent searching, Cassels located the missing McCloy documents. There were twelve unopened cartons of them in the General Services Administration's vast warehouse in Suitland, Maryland. None of the documents were indexed or catalogued in any way.

As a result of Cassels' efforts, these records were reviewed and declassified. Because of their historical significance, they have now been accessioned into the National Archives, where they are available to scholars and other interested members of the public.

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Georgene Cassels was raised in Albany, Georgia. She always envisioned a career in some area of government service, perhaps as an attorney or possibly even in politics. In high school, she worked as a page for the Georgia state legislature.

"The part of the country that I come from is very patriotic," says Cassels. "We consider government service to be an honorable and important profession. It's more than just a job. I feel that what I do is very important."

After receiving a degree in social work from Florida State University, Cassels married a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. Life with a career military officer gave her the opportunity to live in many areas of the continental United States, as well as in Hawaii and in Iceland. As she and her husband moved from place to place, she usually found employment in some area of community services, as a public welfare case officer or as a teacher.

In 1979, her husband was transferred to the Pentagon and Cassels moved more permanently to the Washington metropolitan area.

Because of her background, Cassels sought employment at the State Department and began work there in 1980 as a clerk in its Office of Security. In 1982, she advanced to her present position on State's main FOIA processing staff, a career move that she feels has benefited her greatly.

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Updated August 13, 2014