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US govt audit reveals document over-classification, training deficiencies

US government employees whose job it is to examine and classify American secrets average more than two mistakes per document, in part because of inadequate training and other factors, according to a formal, internal review by the US Department of Justice.

The September audit by the Justice Department’s inspector general  sought to determine if the government’s tendency to over-classify  documents actually hurts the very national security it purports  to protect.

Published Monday, the report found 357 total marking errors  within 141 documents.

The overview was inspired in part by the September 11, 2001  Commission Report, which described how the tragedy could have  been averted if intelligence agencies were not reluctant to share  information with each other. Congress, building off that  recommendation, later passed the Reduced Over-Classification Act  of 2010. The law called for greater cooperation with “public  access to information” and between federal agencies.

The audit described a plethora of documents that were missing  instructions describing how its contents should be declassified.  Furthermore, a number of marking errors were discovered that has  hampered the cooperation and transparency Congress requested.

Some of these marking errors included missing, incomplete, or  incorrect classification blocks, source references, portion  markings, dissemination markings, and declassification  instructions,” the report states. “Department of Justice  component officials generally agreed with our findings that some  information in certain documents should not have been classified  and that the markings on many documents were not accurate.”

One example explained how an FBI employee classified a terrorist  watch list, a document that should be available to the public.  The employee in question told inspector general Michael Horowitz  that he “was following previous work experience practices from  another Intelligence Community agency,” thought to be the  Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Despite this incident and more than a hundred like it, the  inspector general wrote that he “did not find indications of  widespread misclassifications.” However, it “did identify  deficiencies with the implementation of the Department of  Justice’s classification program, including persistent  misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of certain classification  processes by officials within Justice Department components.”

The latest report could have implications for alleviating the  burden of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosure  requests for unreleased information. According to the Department  of Justice, its FOIA system received and processed 63,000 FOIA  requests in 2011, representing a five percent increase from the  year prior. The number of backlogged requests that year increased  from 70,000 to over 83,000 even as the federal government  increased full-time staff to process disclosure requests.

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