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Growing costs of keeping secrets: Almost 30 percent jump in 3 years

Jul. 8, 2012 - 02:39PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted out of a military courtroom at Fort Meade, Md., on June 6. The intelligence analyst is accused of passing thousands of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted out of a military courtroom at Fort Meade, Md., on June 6. The intelligence analyst is accused of passing thousands of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The price tag for protecting government secrets is soaring. In fiscal 2011, executive branch agencies spent $11.4 billion on classified information systems, physical security and other safeguards, up 12 percent from 2010 and almost 30 percent over 2009, according to a new government report.

Those increases follow several years of flat spending, according to the report by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the security classification system.

“It’s of great concern,” said Nancy Soderberg, chairwoman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a federal advisory panel. As the amount of classified information explodes, she said, “it’s clear that the sheer volume is driving up the cost.”

The forces behind the latest spending jump, however, are “a bit of a mystery,” said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. Whatever the cause, Aftergood doubts such increases can continue.

With both the intelligence and defense budgets in decline, “I don’t see how security expenditures can continue to rise,” Aftergood said. “It’s really important from every point of view to get a handle on these costs. Otherwise, circumstances will force reductions in a disorderly manner.”

Last year’s dollar total encompasses estimates from 41 executive branch agencies, but it doesn’t include spending from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office and three other intelligence agencies. Those figures are classified.

Overall, however, their spending adds less than 20 percent to the publicly reported figure, said ISOO Director John Fitzpatrick.

The estimates cover nine categories, such as personnel security, declassification and protection and maintenance for classified information systems. One exception to last year’s upward cost trend was personnel security, where expenses fell 10 percent.

By far, the biggest agency in this area is the Defense Department, which accounts for 90 percent of the $11.4 billion spent on security classification activities last year. Its 2011 spending jumped $1.3 billion from 2010, accounting for the entire increase last year, Fitzpatrick said.

But it would be wrong to assume that all of the Pentagon’s expenditures went solely to shield secrets, said Army Lt. Col. Jim Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman. Some security measures, he said, also protect “our personnel, facilities, technologies and other assets.”

In 2010 and 2011, for example, Defense Department spending on security-related construction and other measures rose almost 20 percent, Gregory said in an email. An Obama administration cybersecurity initiative was another factor in increasing costs, while changes in the Pentagon’s approach to tallying security expenses also drove up the numbers, he said. Some $300 million was added by calculating the pay of civilian security specialists “in a manner that properly reflects actual personnel costs,” Gregory said.

Gregory acknowledged that the Pentagon’s response to the massive WikiLeaks breach may have also played a role, but he said it was not “the largest piece.” That breach became public in 2010 as the anti-secrecy organization posted hundreds of thousands of classified records on the Internet. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the suspected leaker, is awaiting court-martial on 22 charges that include aiding the enemy and theft of public property or records.

In late 2010, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew ordered departments and agencies to create security assessment teams to review procedures for handling classified information. Not long after, Lew followed up by requiring agencies to report on plans to address gaps in their systems for handling classified information.

The results of those reviews have not been made public, but top Pentagon officials have confirmed steps — such as tightening login access to the military’s Secure Internet Protocol Router Network through the use of “smart cards” in place of password systems — to head off so-called insider threats.

An OMB spokesman downplayed the impact that the WikiLeaks breach had on the spending figures reported by ISOO. Because those figures do not include spending by intelligence agencies, which have played a leading role in the WikiLeaks aftermath, “we do not believe that the response would be a significant factor,” Kenneth Baer said.

More broadly, the volume of digitally maintained classified information is skyrocketing.

“Simply as a byproduct of information-sharing, the volume goes up,” Fitzpatrick said, as information is “repurposed” through Web pages, wikis and blogs and then disseminated through social media and other platforms. That growth is causing heartburn even within the intelligence community.

Without an overhaul in the way information is classified and managed, “government business itself … will be impossible,” Harry Cooper, the CIA’s chief of classification management, told the Public Interest Declassification Board at a public forum last year.

Under an executive order from President Obama, the board plans to release a report this fall on restructuring the classification system.

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