Justice Department Guilty of Excessive Secrecy, Internal Audit Finds

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 3 2013 5:07 PM

Justice Department Guilty of Excessive Secrecy, Internal Audit Finds

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For whose eyes only?

Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

President Obama has claimed his administration is the most transparent in history. But excessive secrecy is still a problem within the Justice Department, according to a new internal audit.

Earlier this week, the DOJ’s inspector general published a report reviewing how the department has been classifying information. The secrecy review, which involved the IG’s office conducting more than 100 interviews with officials from agencies including the FBI and the DEA, found that there was a “persistent misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of certain classification processes.” The audit criticized what it described as “deficiencies” in how the DOJ classifies information: In a review of a sample of documents, unclassified information was wrongly designated secret in several instances.

The overclassification of information has become a major issue for the U.S. government since 9/11, with a spike in sensitive national security-related programs leading to spiralling secrecy. In the realm of surveillance, in particular, extreme secrecy has become commonplace, with the DOJ and FBI often heavy-handedly redacting or withholding large portions of documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.  According to the Information Security Oversight Office, in 2012 alone, executive branch agencies issued more than 95 million “classification decisions.” That’s a 3 percent increase on the figure for 2011 (92 million), and a 25 percent rise on the figure for 2010 (77 million).

The IG report says that while misclassification at the DOJ is not “widespread,” redactions done by the department are sometimes wrong and unnecessary, and that officials appear to have a blasé approach to classification. The IG reviewed a sample of 141 documents in total—from the FBI, the DEA, the National Security Division, and the Criminal Division—and found a total of 357 “classified document marking errors,” meaning that they either did not contain required classification markings or contained incorrect classification markings.

In one case, for instance, the FBI wrongly classified a terrorist watchlist that was based on unclassified information. Additionally, the IG audit noted that the DOJ’s National Security and Criminal Divisions had a penchant for overclassifying documents that contained “standard language” citing unclassified laws, statues, or regulations. The excessive secrecy is attributed in the IG report to the fact that some DOJ officials have a “general lack of understanding” about how to properly classify information. Some officials also apparently told the IG auditors that they felt that there were “no consequences for over-classifying information,” so they erred on the side of caution by marking things secret when they were unsure, because “the consequences for releasing classified materials can be significant.”

The review contains a series of recommendations for the DOJ to improve its classification processes, including implementing better training programs to ensure all personnel are aware of the correct policies and procedures. The DOJ had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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