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GAO releases report on accidental posting of nuclear info

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 3:43 p.m. ET

Five government agencies, the National Security Council and two Congressional offices share the blame for the inadvertent publication of sensitive information regarding hundreds of civilian nuclear sites, government watchdogs conclude in a report released Wednesday.

Though the public release of the sensitive information does not appear to have jeopardized national security, government officials agree the information should not have been published last May on the website of the Government Printing Office, the report by the Government Accountability Office said.

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

The GAO report lays out in great 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 U.S., 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 "SBU" is a term unfamiliar to some federal agencies and later 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 the information could be published by the GPO. Agency employees that prepared the document for publication failed to raise concerns about the document's sensitivity, the report said.

Experts said the incident proves yet again that the government needs to reform how it shares information between agencies and 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 focused on the classification and sharing of 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," Franklin said. Usually the classifications lead agencies to withhold information from the public that is not sensitive in nature. In this case, the information's classification confused enough government officials that it was mistakenly released, Franklin said.

The GPO printed more than 900 copies of the document for delivery to Congress and some federal agencies. Roughly 670 copies of the report are now secured in a safe at GPO offices. Copies of the document are still available on some Web sites and the State Department has attempted to get it removed, the report said.

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 the sensitive information in the future. The agencies and other offices generally agreed with the report's findings.

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 23, 2009; 3:02 PM ET
Categories:  Oversight  
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Comments

Where was the common sense? They work for the government, the document was about nuclear issues, maybe you pick up the phone and ask somebody ...

Posted by: dragonlady45 | December 28, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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