The Washington Post

Can the Pentagon keep classified information safe?

The Pentagon agency responsible for making sure contractors are properly handling classified information is having a tough time doing its job.

The Defense Security Service (DSS) has had “recurring” troubles overseeing contractors, according to a November 2009 survey of agency employees. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a contracting watchdog group, got its hands on an internal agency e-mail, dated Sept. 16, that has employees saying they’re concerned about a “lack of resources” at DSS to “accomplish the mission.”

According to a source at DSS with whom POGO officials said they talked, the problems at DSS include having a lack of trained and experienced personnel who are “on-the-ground examining what systems contractors have in place to protect classified information.”

DSS is said to now be conducting a follow-up survey that asks employees, among other things, questions about having enough pens, paper clips and working copy machines. A source inside the agency has told POGO that the greater concern is not the agency’s office supplies but the lack of trained personnel.

With the government using more private contractors to help it do everything from run missile systems, maintain classified databases and analyze intelligence information on terrorist networks, POGO says the DSS report is worrisome.

“As the government’s secrets are increasingly placed in the hands of private companies we need to ensure that these companies can protect our nation’s crown jewels,” said Nick Schwellenbach, POGO’s director of investigations.

POGO points out that DSS’s outgoing director and the Government Accountability Office have said improvements need to be made at DSS.

Kathleen Watson, the director of DSS, who is expected to leave the agency this week, told Congress in April 2008: “When I came to this agency two years ago, it was broken across the board, and it took a year to figure out where the problems were and design a transformation plan. We just got our resources six months ago.

“This is an agency in transition,” she said. “It will be an agency in transition for as long as I am there. We have a lot of work to do; and, in my view, we have just started.”

In its audits of DSS, the GAO has raised concerns about DSS’s ability to ensure classified information is kept secure as contractors at some 11,000-plus facilities work with the Defense Department and dozens of other top-secret agencies. In one report, GAO auditors said DSS couldn’t “provide adequate assurances to government agencies that its oversight of contractor facilities reduces the risk of information compromise.”

It also said the agency didn’t follow proper procedures in reviewing 93 cases where a contractor reported a violation and possible compromise of classified information.

By Dana Hedgpeth  | October 5, 2010; 1:47 PM ET

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