GAO: DOJ needs to fix classification problems

The Justice Department needs a standard classification system and needs to address its staffing shortage, according to a report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

DOJ and its bureaus, specifically the FBI, were under review to determine if the department implemented the National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) recommendations to correct problems in their document classification systems.

ISOO is responsible for oversight of national security classification programs for Executive Branch agencies. GAO conducted the study because of the important role information protection and sharing plays in preventing terrorist attacks, the report said.

DOJ ranks third in the number of documents classified in the executive branch, behind the Defense Department and the CIA. Within DOJ, the FBI handles 98 percent of that work.

In any DOJ entity, a document can be classified in one of five ways: Limited Office Use Only, For Office Use Only, Law Enforcement Sensitive, Propriety Information or DEA-sensitive (specific to DEA). Each of these designations have "unique definitions and safeguard requirements," but they do not have "specific guidance on the types of information that merit each designation," the report said.

Without specific guidelines, employees do not know if the information warrants a sensitive but classified distinction. The components of DOJ do not train their employees to make these decisions nor do they oversee the process by which employees label the information.

Coordinating the classification process within DOJ will not take place until the end of December. Officials are waiting on results from an interagency work group that is standardizing classification procedures throughout the government. The agency said once these standards are available, they will make additional changes to their component's current practices.

Once the work group's standards are available, auditors recommend the attorney general make DOJ:

  • Establish specific guidance for applying the designations they will use;
  • Ensure that all employees authorized to make the designations have the necessary training before they can designate documents; and
  • Set internal controls for overseeing sensitive but unclassified designations to help ensure that they are properly applied.

DOJ has taken action on five of the 10 ISOO recommendations, GAO found. The department has addressed its need to update and make its training more relevant and to fix its component monitoring problems. But Justice needs more people to do this and the department has failed to address its staff shortage issues, which GAO cited as ISOO's most important recommendation.

By not addressing the issue they do not have the resources to fix problems, such as insufficient training and oversight, the report said. Also, the department doesn't know how many people they will need to sufficiently perform its tasks nor does it know which recommendations take priority once the resource void is corrected.

The report said the staff shortage puts the classification program at risk because they are the people who set policy, provide training and oversee classification departmentwide.

ISOO also recommends an increase in DOJ security office clearance, but the agency disagrees with the notion because the program managers of the security office already have access to senior members of the department. Other recommendations not addressed by DOJ include: briefing exiting employees about the need to keep classified information secret, addressing already existing inspection problems and monitoring classification practices.

In all, the FBI implemented or taken action on 11 of the 12 recommendations issued by ISOO.

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