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USDA Deals With Classified Information, But Can’t Handle It

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a system for dealing with classified information, but hasn’t implemented a secure system for managing confidential and secret information, according to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Investigators found that USDA has not followed recommendations for creating a secure process of dealing with classified documents during a 2016 fiscal year audit, though it’s unclear what kind of classified information a civilian agency responsible for overseeing farms and food stamps would generate.

USDA “does not have an internal control structure sufficient to minimize the risk of overclassifying or improperly releasing national security information,” the OIG said in it’s report.

The OIG recommended USDA take 17 actions in 2013, when President Barack Obama’s rules regarding protection of classified information came into effect in 2013. As of this summer, USDA had fallen short on 11 of the 17 benchmarks for handling secure information.

While the OIG did not give an example of the type of classified information USDA would handle, a 2008 departmental manual hints at one area where the agency might need to mark information as “secret.”

For instance, the manual says that USDA research could find a pathogen that could cause disease in humans and animals if introduced into the food supply. If information about that kind of pathogen fell into the wrong hands, it “could cause damage to our national security, and therefore the Secretary may originally classify that information.”

Obama gave the secretary of agriculture the authority to classify information as high as “secret” — meaning information that could cause “serious damage to national security — as opposed to “top secret,” which is reserved for information that “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the OIG noted in their report.

The OIG did not find any cases where classified information was actually improperly released from the USDA in their audit.

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