Rumblings of Discontent:  The DOE's Office of Classification  

Jenna Orkin June 30 2006


A few hours ago, the Government Accountability Office came out with a report entitled Managing Sensitive Information: Actions Needed to Ensure Recent Changes in DOE Oversight Do Not Weaken an Effective Classification System.   

In these trying times of terrorism or, at any rate, terrorismterror, the GAO wanted to ensure that government agencies were classifying documents properly and that the offices reviewing the classification process were reviewing it properly.  Is that clear?  Anyway, the GAO's concern was evenhanded.  Their report speaks of the danger not only of letting a classified document slip into the welcoming arms of Al Qaeda, but also of the risk cited by the 9/11 Commission that overclassification could stymie the sharing of information between agencies.   

Off to a good start.   

With respect to the Department of Energy, the GAO had cause for concern.  Between 2000 and 2005, the DOE's Office of Classification produced a robust 34 reports reviewing the classification process.  Mistakes were found in a mere 20 documents of 12,000 that they reviewed, a rate of less than one sixth of 1%.  Most of the misclassified documents remained classified, just not at the appropriate level.  The GAO found the DOE to be among the best agencies at classification in the federal government.  They could have just asked the Sierra Club.   

The problem began in October 2005 when, in the interest of consolidation, DOE shifted responsibility for oversight from the Office of Classification to the Office of Security Evaluation which is also within the Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance and which is primarily responsible for the oversight of physical security at DOE sites containing nuclear materials (ie: Category 1 sites.) (p. 12)  

After the shift, classification oversight ceased til February 2006.  Since then, there have been a measly two reviews of classification.   The GAO recommends that the Secretary of Energy:

1)  ensure that the classified information oversight program provides oversight to a similar number of sites as it had done prior to October 2005 and a similar depth of analysis.  

2)  strengthen the review of classified documents by applying consistent selection procedures when identifying documents of review  

3)  disclose the selection procedures used for document review in future classification inspection reports.    

The DOE says it's doing all that.  The procedues for conducting oversight are still evolving, including the number of sites to be reviewed.  Eight more reviews are in the works.  If they're completed by the end of the year, DOE will be back on track reviewing its own classification process and can reclaim its status as model to the rest of the federal government.