U.S. agencies faulted by GAO for leak of nuclear data

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A13

Five government agencies, the National Security Council and two congressional offices all share blame for the inadvertent publication of sensitive information regarding hundreds of civilian nuclear sites, government watchdogs concluded Wednesday.

Though the release of the information does not appear to have jeopardized national security, government officials agree that it should not have been published in June on the Web site of the Government Printing Office, the Government Accountability Office reported.

The draft declaration of U.S. nuclear facilities -- which included locations for those that store enriched uranium and other materials for use in nuclear weapons -- was meant to be seen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but it appeared for about a day on the GPO Web site. Reporters' inquiries prompted its removal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ordered the Government Accountability Office to investigate. Her office would not comment Wednesday on the report.

The GAO report lays out in detail the mistakes made by the departments of Commerce, Energy and State, the GPO, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Security Council, and the House of Representatives' parliamentarian and clerk's office.

Commerce, Energy and the NRC first classified the document's sensitivity using an IAEA designation that carries no legal significance in the United States, the report said. The State Department then characterized the document as "sensitive but unclassified" when it was delivered to the National Security Council for review. But that term is unfamiliar to some federal agencies and sparked confusion, the report said.

The National Security Council then failed to provide explicit instructions on how to handle the information when it was delivered to the White House clerk's office, the GAO said. Once the clerk's office delivered the document to Capitol Hill, the parliamentarian and House clerk's office incorrectly concluded that the information could be published by the GPO. Agency employees who prepared the document for publication failed to raise concerns about its sensitivity, the report said.

Experts said the incident proves yet again that the government needs to reform how it handles sensitive information.

"It does seem like a key example of the confusion caused by the current system," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel at the Constitution Project, a group that has advocated for a simpler method of classifying and distributing government information. "The problem is that, because we have more than 107 classifications of government information, agencies don't know what to do with it."

Some of the confusion stemmed from the fact that this was the first time the government had to prepare such a document for the IAEA, the report said. GAO recommended that the agencies adopt an agreement on how to handle such information in the future. The agencies and other offices generally agreed with the report's findings.

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