GAO Finds Pentagon Erratic In Wielding Secrecy Stamp

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

The Government Accountability Office has criticized the Defense Department for sloppy management of its security classification system, including the marking as "Confidential or Secret" material that Pentagon officials acknowledged was unclassified information.

The GAO said in a report June 30 that one of the major questions raised by its study was "whether all of the information marked as classified met established criteria for classification." The GAO also found "inconsistent treatment of similar information within the same document."

The GAO reviewed only a "nonprobability sample" of 111 classified Defense Department documents from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. To understand how minute the sample is, the GAO reported that in the five fiscal years between 2000 and 2004, the Pentagon was responsible for 66.8 million new classified records. That is about 13.4 million a year.

The GAO report, which was sent to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the subcommittee on national security of the Government Reform Committee, and disclosed on the Secrecy News Web site of Steven Aftergood, concluded that "a lack of oversight and inconsistent implementation of DOD's information security program are increasing the risk of misclassification."

The report was issued at a time when the Bush administration is criticizing newspapers for publishing classified information, and when two nongovernment civilians, who were lobbyists for a pro-Israeli organization, are being prosecuted under the 85-year-old Espionage Act for receiving and retransmitting material they got from a Pentagon official involving national defense secrets.

"One reason why classification is an unreliable guide as to what should or should not be published by the press is that classification policy is implemented erratically by the government," Aftergood wrote on his Web site.

Of the 111 classified documents reviewed, the GAO questioned classification determinations of 29, about one out of every four. A majority of those questioned "pertained to whether all of the information marked as classified met established criteria for classification."

Pentagon officials agreed that in five documents "the information was unclassified and in a sixth document the information should be downgraded."

In a broader administrative criticism, the GAO found that 92 of the 111 documents had some marking error, such as failure to include declassification instructions or the source of the classification as required.

In 2004, there were 1,059 senior Defense Department officials designated to possess "original classification authority," but more than 1.8 million defense employees who were authorized to classify papers "derivatively," meaning the incorporation of already classified information into a new document by paraphrasing or repetition.

The report also comments on a broader problem: that the government as a whole has no common security classification standard and no penalties for overclassification, underclassification or failure to declassify.

It notes, for example, that although different agencies have authority to classify material, there are conflicting markings in some agencies for annotating with an "R" whether a record is to be released or declassified or retained and kept classified. "One of the agencies uses a 'D' to denote 'deny automatic declassification' and an 'R' to denote release," the report says. "While the other agency uses a 'D' to denote 'declassify' and an 'R' to denote 'retain.' "

The report also said that even though the president, Congress and the public are given figures estimating how many Defense Department documents are classified each year, such estimates are "unreliable" because Pentagon agencies use different assumptions "about what should be included."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company