National Security: DOD and State Have Processes for Formal and Informal Challenges to the Classification of Information

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of State (State) have similar processes for formal challenges to the classification of information. For example, if there is reason to believe that information is improperly classified, authorized holders—including executive branch agency or contractor personnel with relevant clearances—can submit a formal classification challenge in writing (see figure). Officials will then review the classification challenge and make a determination. If a formal challenge is denied, the authorized holder can then appeal to senior officials within the agency, and if the agency denies the appeal, the authorized holder can appeal directly to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). ISCAP, established by Executive Order, then issues a decision that is final unless the head of the agency appeals ISCAP’s decision to the President.

Processes for Formal Challenges to the Classification of Information

aIndividual refers to an authorized holder with access to classified information.

Both DOD and State encourage authorized holders to resolve classification challenges informally before pursuing a formal classification challenge. According to DOD and State officials, informal challenges can be done in person, by phone, or by email. For example, officials told GAO that authorized holders can contact the relevant information security office about whether classified documents are marked properly.

According to DOD and State officials, Members of Congress (Members) may use their existing processes to formally and informally challenge the classification of information. However, according to officials from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which provides support to ISCAP, Members cannot appeal a decision to ISCAP. Instead, Members can appeal to the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), a statutory body that makes recommendations to the President in response to certain congressional requests to evaluate the proper classification of records. DOD officials stated that they do not have any knowledge of ever receiving a formal classification challenge from Members. State officials stated that they did not receive any formal classification challenges from Members in 2017 through 2020. ISOO officials also stated that the panel received its first formal classification challenge from a Member in 2020. ISCAP subsequently denied the challenge and directed the Member to the PIDB.

Why GAO Did This Study

Classified national security information is vital to U.S. national interests. The appropriate protection and handling of this information is a top priority for the executive branch and Congress. Based on guidance, such as Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information, authorized holders with access to classified information may submit a classification challenge if there are reasons to believe information is improperly classified. According to DOD and State officials, Members may also submit a classification challenge.

GAO was asked to review the processes for challenging the classification of national security information. This report describes (1) the processes to challenge the classification of information at DOD and State; and (2) the processes that Members of Congress can use to challenge the classification of information at DOD and State.

GAO reviewed applicable laws and regulations, and DOD, State, and other guidance related to the classification of information and classification challenge processes. GAO also interviewed DOD, State and ISOO officials.

For more information, contact Joe Kirschbaum at (202) 512-9971 or Kirschbaumj@gao.gov.

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    Two militant fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a foreign terrorist organization, are expected to arrive in the United States today in FBI custody on charges related to their participation in a brutal hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the deaths of four American citizens, as well as the deaths of British and Japanese nationals, in Syria.
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  • How NASA’s Perseverance Mars Team Has Adjusted to Work in the Time of Coronavirus
    In Space
    Like much of the rest of [Read More…]
  • OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Statement
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Department of Justice Publishes Proposed Regulations Articulating the Registration Requirements for Sex Offenders under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice has published proposed regulations that provide a clear and comprehensive statement of sex offenders’ registration requirements under the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).  SORNA requires convicted sex offenders to register in the states in which they live, work, or attend school, and it directs the Attorney General to issue regulations and guidelines to implement SORNA. 
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  • Florida Man Charged with COVID Relief Fraud, Health Care Fraud and Money Laundering
    In Crime News
    A Florida man has been charged regarding allegations that he fraudulently obtained a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and that he orchestrated a conspiracy to submit false and fraudulent claims for reimbursement to Medicare and CareCredit, and to defraud his own patients by charging them thousands of dollars for chiropractic services under false pretenses.
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  • Department of Energy Contracting: Improvements Needed to Ensure DOE Assesses Its Full Range of Contracting Fraud Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO identified nine categories of contracting fraud schemes that occurred at the Department of Energy (DOE), including billing schemes, conflicts of interest, and payroll schemes. For example, a subcontractor employee at a site created fraudulent invoices for goods never received, resulting in a loss of over $6 million. In another scheme, a contractor engaged in years of widespread time card fraud, submitting inflated claims for compensation. The contractor agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle the case. DOE reported that it identified nearly $15 million in improper payments due to confirmed fraud in fiscal year 2019. However, due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, agencies—including DOE—incur financial losses related to fraud that are never identified or are settled without admission to fraud and are not counted as such. Fraud can also have nonfinancial impacts, such as fraudsters obtaining a competitive advantage and preventing legitimate businesses from obtaining contracts. DOE has taken some steps and is planning others to demonstrate a commitment to combat fraud and assess its contracting fraud risks, consistent with the leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. However, GAO found that DOE has not assessed the full range of contracting fraud risks it faces. Specifically, GAO found DOE's methods for gathering information about its fraud risks captures selected fraud risks—rather than all fraud risks—facing DOE programs. As shown in the figure, DOE's risk profiles for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 did not capture four of nine fraud schemes that occurred at DOE. For example, one entity did not include any fraud risks in its risk profiles, yet GAO identified six types of fraud schemes that occurred at the entity's site. DOE plans to expand its risk assessment process, but officials expect the new process will continue to rely on a methodology that gathers information on selected fraud risks. The Fraud Risk Framework states that entities identify specific tools, methods, and sources for gathering information about fraud risks. Without expanding its methodology to capture, assess, and document all fraud risks facing its programs, DOE risks remaining vulnerable to these types of fraud. Fraud Risks Identified in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 Risk Profiles Compared with Types of Fraud Schemes That Have Occurred at DOE DOE is planning to develop an antifraud strategy in fiscal year 2022 and has taken some steps to evaluate and adapt to fraud risks, consistent with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Part of DOE's effort to manage fraud risks includes adapting controls to address emerging fraud risks. Additionally, DOE is planning to expand its use of data analytics to detect contracting fraud, beginning in fiscal year 2022. DOE relies primarily on contractors to carry out its missions at its laboratories and other facilities, spending approximately 80 percent of its total obligations on contracts. GAO and DOE's Inspector General have reported on incidents of fraud by DOE contractors and identified multiple contracting fraud risks. GAO was asked to examine DOE's processes to manage contracting fraud risks. This report examines, for DOE, (1) types of contracting fraud schemes and their financial and nonfinancial impacts, (2) steps taken to commit to combating contracting fraud risks and the extent to which these risks have been assessed, and (3) steps taken to design and implement an antifraud strategy and to evaluate and adapt its approach. GAO reviewed relevant laws and guidance; reviewed agency media releases, Agency Financial Reports, and DOE Inspector General reports to Congress from 2013 through 2019; and reviewed documents and interviewed officials from 42 DOE field and site offices, contractors, and subcontractors, representing a range of sites and programs. GAO is making two recommendations, including for DOE to expand its fraud risk assessment methodology to ensure all fraud risks facing DOE programs are fully assessed and documented in accordance with leading practices. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-6722 shear@gao.gov or Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841, bawdena@gao.gov.
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  • Information Technology: Agencies Need to Develop and Implement Modernization Plans for Critical Legacy Systems
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In June 2019, GAO identified 10 critical federal information technology (IT) legacy systems that were most in need of modernization. These legacy systems provided vital support to agencies' missions. According to the agencies, these legacy systems ranged from about 8 to 51 years old and, collectively, cost about $337 million annually to operate and maintain. Several of the systems used older languages, such as Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). GAO has previously reported that reliance on such languages has risks, such as a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in the availability of individuals with the proper skill sets. Further, several of the legacy systems were operating with known security vulnerabilities and unsupported hardware and software. Of the 10 agencies responsible for these legacy systems, GAO reported in June 2019 that seven agencies (the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the Interior, the Treasury; as well as the Office of Personnel Management; Small Business Administration; and Social Security Administration) had documented plans for modernizing the systems (see table). Of the seven agencies with plans, only the Departments of the Interior's and Defense's modernization plans included all of the key elements identified in best practices (milestones, a description of the work necessary to complete the modernization, and a plan for the disposition of the legacy system). The other five agencies lacked complete modernization plans. The Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Transportation did not have documented modernization plans. Table: Extent to Which Agencies' Had Documented Modernization Plans for Legacy Systems That Included Key Elements, as of June 2019 Agency Included milestones to complete the modernization Described work necessary to modernize system Summarized planned disposition of legacy system Department of Defense Yes Yes Yes Department of Education n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Health and Human Services n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Department of Homeland Security No Yes No Department of the Interior Yes Yes Yes Department of the Treasury Partial Yes No Department of Transportation n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan Office of Personnel Management Partial Partial No Small Business Administration Yes No Yes Social Security Administration Partial Partial No Source: GAO analysis of agency modernization plans. | GAO-21-524T Agencies received a “partial” if the element was completed for a portion of the modernization. GAO stressed that, until the eight agencies established complete plans, their modernizations would face an increased risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and project failure. Accordingly, GAO recommended that each of the eight develop such plans. However, to date, seven of the agencies had not done so. It is essential that agencies implement GAO's recommendations and these plans in order to meet mission needs, address security risks, and reduce operating costs. Why GAO Did This Study Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments. Of this amount, agencies have typically spent about 80 percent on the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments, including legacy systems. However, federal legacy systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. In May 2016, GAO reported instances where agencies were using systems that had components that were at least 50 years old or the vendors were no longer providing support for hardware or software. Similarly, in June 2019 GAO reported that several of the federal government's most critical legacy systems used outdated languages, had unsupported hardware and software, and were operating with known security vulnerabilities. GAO was asked to testify on its June 2019 report on federal agencies' legacy systems. Specifically, GAO summarized (1) the critical federal legacy systems that we identified as most in need of modernization and (2) its evaluation of agencies' plans for modernizing them. GAO also provided updated information regarding agencies' implementation of its related recommendations.
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  • Intellectual Property: Additional Agency Actions Can Improve Assistance to Small Businesses and Inventors
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers multiple programs that help small businesses and inventors with acquiring intellectual property protections, which can help protect creative works or ideas. These programs, such as the Inventors Assistance Center, are aimed at assisting the public, especially small businesses and inventors, with intellectual property protections. Several stakeholders GAO interviewed said that USPTO programs have been helpful, but they were also not aware of some USPTO programs. Although these programs individually evaluate how they help small businesses and inventors, the agency does not collect and evaluate overall information on whether these programs are effectively reaching out to and meeting the needs of these groups. Under federal internal control standards, an agency should use quality information to achieve its objectives. Without an agency-wide approach to collect information to help evaluate the extent to which its programs serve small businesses and inventors, USPTO may not have the quality information needed to fully evaluate the effectiveness of its outreach and assistance for these groups and thus make improvements where necessary. Although the Small Business Administration (SBA) coordinates with USPTO through targeted efforts to provide intellectual property training to small businesses, it has not fully implemented some statutory requirements that can further enhance this coordination. While SBA and the Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) coordinate with USPTO programs at the local level to train small businesses on intellectual property protection (see figure), this coordination is inconsistent. For example, two of the 12 SBDCs that GAO interviewed reported working primarily with USPTO to help small businesses protect their intellectual property, but the other 10 did not. The Small Business Innovation Protection Act of 2017 requires SBA and USPTO to coordinate and build on existing intellectual property training programs, and requires that SBA's local partners, specifically the SBDCs, provide intellectual property training, in coordination with USPTO. SBA officials reported that they are in the process of implementing requirements of this act. Incorporating selected leading practices for collaboration, such as documenting the partnership agreement and clarifying roles and responsibilities, could help SBA and USPTO fully and consistently communicate their existing resources to their partners and programs, enabling them to refer these resources to small businesses and inventors. Figure: The Small Business Administration (SBA) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Coordinate at the Local Level, but Are Inconsistent Small businesses employ about half of the U.S. private workforce and create approximately two-thirds of the nation's jobs. For many small businesses, intellectual property aids in building market share and creating jobs. Among the federal agencies assisting small businesses with intellectual property are USPTO, which grants patents and registers trademarks, and SBA, which assists small businesses on a variety of business development issues, including intellectual property. GAO was asked to review resources available to help small businesses and inventors protect intellectual property, and their effectiveness. This report examines, among other things, (1) the extent to which USPTO evaluates the effectiveness of its efforts to assist small businesses and (2) SBA's coordination with USPTO to assist small businesses. GAO analyzed agency documents and interviewed officials who train and assist small businesses. GAO also interviewed stakeholders, including small businesses, and, among other things, reviewed federal internal control standards and selected leading practices for enhancing interagency collaboration. GAO is making four recommendations, including that USPTO develop an agency-wide approach to evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to help small businesses and inventors, and that SBA document its partnership agreement with USPTO and clarify roles and responsibilities for coordinating with USPTO to provide training. Both agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann, (202) 512-6888, NeumannJ@gao.gov. 
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