Counterintelligence reviews by the Department of Energy (DOE) put the personal information of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at risk of exposure, according to a report from the DOE’s inspector general (OIG).
The report, dated this June and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, was prompted by an “allegation that security files for certain Executive Branch officials, including the President and Vice President of the U.S.,” had been accessed by a “Department support contractor,” despite that they “are not subject to counterintelligence evaluations under 10 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
The inspector general “substantiated the allegation” and confirmed that those whose records were accessed by “Department and support contractor personnel” included officials “in current and prior Administrations.”
According to the OIG, “The inappropriate access occurred after the National Nuclear Security Administration requested that the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence perform counterintelligence evaluations to help determine where access to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Special Access Programs [SAPs] and Sigma programs should be granted according to existing Department guidance.”
As a result of the failure to “fully adhere” to the CFR and the appropriate exemptions, the DOE was subjected “to a higher-than-necessary level of risk that the personally identifiable information of high-ranking Federal executives will be inappropriately accessed and/or compromised,” the OIG stated.
Brad Moss, a partner at law firm Mark S. Zaid P.C. who specializes in litigation on national security and security clearance law, cited the report and claimed it was another example of poor training and deficient technology “resulting in unauthorized access to information beyond an individual’s need to know,” according to E&E News.
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“In this case, that information was nothing less than the records of the president and vice president of the United States,” he noted.
“There is a real and serious need for proper counterintelligence reviews to be performed on an ongoing basis,” Moss explained. “It undermines those activities when officials are conducting reviews of personnel that are excluded by law from the process.”
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, said the report is “a good thing.”
“What this episode shows is the need for external oversight. People may not know the rules and do the wrong thing,” he told E&E News. “This report is a good thing. It shows the oversight process is alert and effective.”
The OIG’s review was appreciated by the DOE, according to the department’s spokesperson Charisma Troiano, who added that protecting classified information is “a top priority.”
“As reflected in the report, while irregular, the records accessed were part of a good-faith effort to follow DOE orders and guidance,” Troiano said, adding that the OIG “did not issue a finding of wrongdoing and there was no loss or compromise of classified records.”
“The practice has since ceased,” Troiano said, “and DOE is currently reviewing its procedures for controls around classified information to ensure they are updated, clear, and align with government-wide” policies.
‘The Energy Department uses the Clearance Action Tracking System (CATS) to process security clearances for its personnel,” E&E News reports. “The web-based case management system has gobs of personal information, including social security numbers, family members’ names and addresses.”
“The National Nuclear Security Administration is a semi-independent agency within the Energy Department,” the outlet continues. “Stood up in 2000, it handles several nuclear issues, including the security of nuclear weapons as well as responding to radiological emergencies.”
In October 2021, an “internal review” at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) identified “potential misuse of CATS and its data” and contacted the OIG, according to the June report. The OIG said that the NNSA official “alleged that security files for certain Executive Branch officials, including the President and Vice President of the U.S., had been accessed in CATS without explanation.”
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On Jan. 13, 2021, NNSA requested a counterintelligence evaluation on then-President-Elect Biden, according to the OIG report. “On August 18, 2021, a similar request was made for Vice President Harris.” The requested evaluations were conducted “and their records were accessed on January 15, 2021, and on August 19, 2021, respectively.”
Additionally, evaluations were requested of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the CIA, the president’s Chief of Staff, and the National Security Advisor, among other “high-ranking Federal executives within the current Administration.”
Ryan Cocolin, chief of staff for the Energy Department’s inspector general office, declined to tell E&E News if reviews were performed for former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, saying that the question would be better suited for the DOE and NNSA.
“As noted in the report, we were told that this practice occurred during prior administrations,” Cocolin said. “As such, we recommended to the department that they determine whether there were any breaches that required notification.”
In their response to the report, Jill Hruby, undersecretary for nuclear security and NNSA administrator, and Steven Black, director of DOE’s intelligence office, noted that the “inappropriate” access was done in “good faith.”
“It is important to note that the records were accessed only as part of a good-faith effort to protect national security, and the OIG review did not identify any loss or compromise of personal information for the affected individuals,” they stated in their response. “It is important to note that the records were accessed only as part of a good-faith effort to protect national security, and the OIG review did not identify any loss or compromise of personal information for the affected individuals.”
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