For a government bureaucrat privy to the nation's most closely held secrets, Steven Garfinkel is in a class by himself. He's accessible to historians and researchers. He even talks to reporters.

And he never goes "off the record." It's a habit that's "almost" gotten him fired a couple of times, he says, but he's convinced it has been one of the keys to his survival as an appointee of three very different presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

A lawyer who has worked for the government for almost 30 years, Garfinkel, 54, is director of the tiny Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), a little-known agency that keeps changing its address, but always takes with it the same responsibilities: overseeing the classification of sensitive national security information, making sure that real secrets are kept secret, and promoting the declassification of as much of the rest as soon as possible.

It's a delicate balancing act and Garfinkel necessarily takes a long view of what "as soon as possible" means. He's working under a 1995 executive order--which he helped draft--that says 25 years is long enough for most sensitive information, but he's had some setbacks recently, dictated by congressional fears that nuclear secrets might be lurking undetected on old records about to be released.

Thanks to legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a time-consuming, page-by-page review of the 700 million pages already "declassified" under the 1995 Clinton order is underway. Another 700 million pages await first-time review, most of which will be page by page, due to a law sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

A husky man with a hearty voice, Garfinkel is unfazed.

"It's going to take a few years to get through this stuff," he said. "But I would very much like the public to look at this from a long-term perspective because I think in the long term, we're going to be writing history books using these declassified records for generations. So to worry about what's happening in 1999 or 2000 is a little bit short-sighted."

One of the few senior government officials who was born and raised in Washington, Garfinkel graduated from Anacostia High School and got his law degree from George Washington University in 1970. He wound up at ISOO in a sort of accidental progression that began when he went to work for the General Services Administration handling Freedom of Information Act cases and serving as counsel to the National Archives and Records Service, then part of GSA.

He became a fan of automatic or bulk declassification of old records when he was sent to inspect military procurement records from World War II that GSA had inherited. He was ushered into a vault stacked with boxes of still classified records about purchases of toilet paper, shirts, boots, chevrons, uniforms, "everything you can imagine."

Garfinkel spot-checked about 30 boxes in a single day and, assured he had the authority, announced before leaving: "This room is hereby declassified." If he'd had to do a page-by-page review, Garfinkel says, "I'd still be there."

He became ISOO director in 1980 after Carter's first appointee, former congressman Michael Blouin (D-Iowa), left the post. Technically he's appointed by the head of the office's parent agency, first GSA, then OMB, and now the Archives, but the appointments must be approved by the president.

Limited to a budget of less than $1 million and a staff of 12, including himself, Garfinkel is "the most thoughtful and best-informed critic" of the system he supervises, but he "has an impossible job," says Steven Aftergood, director of the secrecy and government project of the Federation of American Scientists.

For example, Garfinkel is supposed to oversee the operation of specially named top-secret "compartments" to which only those with a demonstrated need to know are admitted. "If he looked into one compartment a day, he wouldn't have much time for anything else," Aftergood says.

Garfinkel, who has, "in theory, access to more information than anyone else in government except the president and vice president," says there are still too many compartments and that he can look into them only "on an ad hoc basis," usually after they've been exposed by a newspaper article. In the 1980s, he says, compartments were sometimes used to hide information that shouldn't have been classified, but he's confident that Pentagon reforms of that era "have cured a lot of that problem."

At ISOO, Garfinkel quickly established a reputation for speaking his mind. He says people who deal in secrets and go "off the record" are much more "vulnerable" to retaliation and dismissal.

Back in 1991, "just for the fun of it," Garfinkel took an Air Force media relations course that included a battery of tests in which officers pretended to be reporters and subjected him to a newspaper interview, a TV interview, and surprise questions in an unexpected phone call and in a face-to-face encounter on the street.

"One of the things that came out of it was that perhaps I was a little too candid," Garfinkel said. Obviously, it was too late for him to change.

CAPTION: Steven Garfinkel, head of the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives, makes it a practice never to go "off the record." He feels those who do are much more vulnerable to retaliation and dismissal.