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Secrecy reforms expected, experts say

Dec. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The federal government’s methods for keeping secrets are coming under unprecedented scrutiny. Consider:

■ Late last month, the Obama administration confirmed that homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco will lead a review of an advisory panel’s recommendations to modernize the classification system.

■ The same day, a House oversight committee subpoenaed the Office of Personnel Management for contracts and other documents as part of an investigation into the process for granting security clearances.

■ The same week, a senior counterintelligence official told senators that agencies have been given three months to review and clean up their lists of clearance holders.

Although the status quo has been entrenched for decades, “I think something is likely to change,” Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an interview. “The momentum is growing, not diminishing.”

Fueling that momentum are two developments: Massive leaks of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and Aaron Alexis’s murder of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September.

Both men held security clearances granted through a process “orchestrated” by OPM, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a letter to the agency’s director, Katherine Archuleta.

To fix that process legislatively, he said, Congress needs “complete access to the current policies, training materials and other guidelines currently in place.” Issa is also seeking OPM contracts with the three companies that conduct background investigations on clearance applicants. The subpoena gives OPM until Dec. 5 to turn over the records; the agency will “respond as appropriate,” a spokeswoman said.

The White House’s decision to undertake an interagency review of possible changes to the classification system comes almost a year after the advisory panel, known as the Public Interest Declassification Board, forwarded a list of 14 recommendations. Among them: Eliminating the “confidential” marking and automatically declassifying some records—such as those covering many military troop operations—that are sensitive for only a short period of time.

The White House declined to give a timetable for the review. Monaco, whose official title is assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, previously served as assistant attorney general for national security and also worked at the FBI.

She is an “ideal person” to lead the review, Nancy Soderberg, the declassification board’s chairwoman, said in an interview. “I think she understands how hard it is to change some of this culture.”

Also alarming lawmakers is the growing number of federal employees and contractors who hold security clearances. According to the latest rundown by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the count stood at more than 4.9 million as of October 2012, about a 1 percent increase over the preceding year.

In an Oct. 31 memo, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave agencies 90 days to go through their clearance lists and validate the numbers, Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the office’s National Counterintelligence Executive, told a Senate homeland security subcommittee last month.

A single person slipping through the cracks can carry out a mass shooting or do “untold damage” to national security by exposing sensitive information, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the subcommittee’s chairman, said at the hearing.

Policy-makers have “got to get this right,” Tester added, “because there literally is no margin for error.” ■

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