SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A judge says the federal government can legally withhold the names, salaries and positions of more than 900,000 federal employees from a Syracuse University agency that for years has made the information public.
Chief U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue determined the privacy rights of the employees could be compromised by release of the information to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC. The judge also agreed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that the release of certain information could compromise national security.
"It's a bad decision. It flies in the face of 220 years of federal history," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Who is employed by the federal government and what they make has never been kept a secret in this country, unless you're a covert operative. This is an example of privacy interests running amok."
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, called Mordue's ruling a "blunderbuss approach."
"I just think the court found some legitimacy in the government's arguments and then went too far and accepted them wholesale. What the court should have done is considered the public right to information and the need for accountability about salaries and focused its decision to protect the specific privacy issues OPM raised," she said.
"We're disappointed in the decision," TRAC co-director David Burnham said Tuesday from his office in Washington, D.C. "They waved the terrorism flag and the judge bought it."
Burnham said TRAC was considering whether to appeal the 35-page ruling, which was issued Sept. 30.
"There's an aspect of this case that's still open," Burnham said. "The judge ordered the government to come in with more evidence. There will be further discussion. We're not making a final decision until that's over."
Since 1989, TRAC has been posting an Internet database with the names, work locations, salaries and job categories of all 2.7 million federal civilian workers except those in some law enforcement agencies. The data are often used by reporters and government watchdog groups to monitor policies and detect waste or abuse.
The federal government began publicly naming its employees and releasing the related information in 1816.
The last complete set of data provided by OPM covered 2003.
Since then, all records of civilian employees of the Defense Department have been withheld and name and duty locations were withheld for an estimated 150,000 other civilian workers, the lawsuit said. The others work in 650 occupations at 250 different agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the National Park Service and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
TRAC officials had requested and received comparable information for many years, but significant portions — about 40% — of the information they wanted in 2004 was removed by OPM, Burnham said. TRAC filed a lawsuit to obtain the redacted information under the Freedom of Information Act in December 2005.
OPM spokesman Mike Orenstein said the agency would have no comment on Mordue's ruling.
In court papers, Gary Lukowski, manager of work force information and planning in the OPM's strategic human resources policy office, said the terrorist attacks in 2001 had "heightened OPM's awareness of the vulnerability of federal employees to terrorist attacks anywhere within the United States based solely on the fact that personnel work for the federal government."
OPM also determined that employees in specific occupations were "more vulnerable and likely to be exposed to harassment and unwarranted attention as a direct result of their work, whether it be to further criminal purposes or merely to vent misplaced frustrations," Lukowski said in court papers.
He argued that identifying information should be withheld for any federal employee — regardless of their position — whose work involves "national security, homeland security or law enforcement," such as U.S. Mint, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Secret Service employees.
"This is a real step backward," Burnham told The Syracuse Post-Standard, which first reported the decision in yesterday’s edition. "We think it is absolutely essential for the public to have this information for an open, representative democracy."