IG: USDA lacks internal controls on classified information

An inspector general audit revealed that the Agriculture Department does not have adequate internal controls to prevent incorrectly categorizing or improperly releasing classified information.

Shutterstock image: secured files.

The Agriculture Department does not have adequate internal controls to prevent incorrectly categorizing or improperly releasing classified information, according to an inspector general classification management audit.

Auditors noted that although they did not find any instances of leaked national security information, USDA's lack of internal controls increases the "potential for misclassification, over-classification and unauthorized release of national security information."

The report does not elaborate on the kinds of information that might be classified under USDA's authority, but a 2008 document from the Office of the CIO states that the secretary of Agriculture could order the classification of information about a pathogen that creates a high risk to health if included in a food product.

USDA's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Coordination (OHSEC) is charged with managing the agency's security status. Within OHSEC, the Personnel and Document Security Division (PDSD) safeguards and manages security information and makes sure documents are properly classified.

A 2013 IG review uncovered weaknesses in OHSEC's internal management controls of classified material and made 17 recommendations. OHSEC agreed to all 17; however, the agency is behind schedule on addressing them.

During the IG's fiscal 2016 review, auditors found that 11 of the 17 recommendations remained open, and the director of OHSEC told auditors until May 2015, he was unaware that actions to strengthen internal controls were not being taken.

Specifically, auditors discovered that the agency had not implemented the records management system it had acquired in December 2012 to facilitate the declassification of documents. It was supposed to have been operational by the end of June 2016. Agency officials said a small number of documents had been added to the system but provided no corroborating documentation.

Auditors also said the documentation of self-inspections, which was estimated to be completed by the end of September 2014, still did not meet standards. PDS lacked documentation that any self-inspections had been completed in fiscal 2014 and could only show that eight of 19 subordinate agencies completed self-inspections in fiscal 2015.

Additionally, a program for training employees in how to handle classified information, which was estimated to be completed by the end of September 2014, was inadequate, according to auditors.

The IG recommended that OHSEC fulfill the previously agreed-to recommendations regarding management controls and internal reviews processes, track statistical classification data and develop its guidance for classification management and employee training programs. Furthermore, the IG urged top officials to pay close attention to implementation.

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