26 March 1999. Thanks to Dan Dupont.

Inside the Pentagon,  March 25, 1999

Cohen: attestation process has become a 'nuisance'


Daniel G. Dupont

Continuing a string of initiatives designed to improve the security of military information, Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and 10 members of his staff last week became the first in the Pentagon to make an "oral attestation" of their commitment to the terms and conditions of their security clearances.

The new demand for an oral attestation, in addition to the current mandate for a written pledge of commitment, adds to the growing number of requirements for gaining access to the military's highest secrets as the national security establishment grows warier of leaks and insufficient information protection.

Hamre's March 18 oath followed Defense Secretary William Cohen's issuance, in early February, of a new policy mandating that all DOD personnel granted access to top-secret information or special-access programs must "make a verbal attestation that he or she will conform to the conditions and responsibilities imposed by law or regulation on those granted clearance or access."

The new policy springs from a belief held by Hamre and others that the security of military information is more vulnerable than ever. Last year Hamre instituted new rules governing the types of information that can be released to the public via Internet sites, creating a new layer of secrecy that labels some unclassified information available in paper form more dangerous when it is accessible electronically (Inside the Pentagon, Oct. 1, 1998, p1).

And in February, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet noted growing concern with the frequent appearance of classified information in print and broadcast news, stating such leaks constitute dangers to national security.

"We have a set of laws, rules and regulations that were put in place to protect the idea that some information should be restricted from the public domain -- for good reason," Hughes testified. "And that is not being honored, as far as I can tell."

The Defense Department leadership has also begun to believe those with access to sensitive information are not treating their responsibilities gravely enough.

"During the past decade the personal attestation required in the granting of security clearances has devolved into a routine administrative process, constituting little more than an administrative nuisance with little significance, and with too little awareness of the commitment that is being made by individuals as they are granted access," Cohen's Feb. 5 memo states.

The policy was made effective Feb. 15 and is applicable to all military and civilian DOD employees but not, so far, to contractor personnel, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen. "The verbal attestation must be witnessed by at least one individual in addition to the official who presides over the attestation and manages the process," Cohen adds.

Arthur Money, the senior civilian official in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence, added in a separate Feb. 5 memorandum that the policy applies both to individuals granted a new security clearance as well as those with existing clearances.

"Individuals newly granted a top-secret clearance, or a specially controlled access category or compartment (SCI and SAP), shall attest to understanding fully their responsibilities to protect national security information and to adhere to the provisions stated on Standard Form 312, Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement, and/or the SCI/SAP Indoctrination Form, after reading the entire Nondisclosure Agreement," Money writes.

As for those with existing clearances, their attestations can be made "upon initiation of the required periodic reinvestigation or when granted access to another compartmented program, whichever is sooner," the memo adds.

Steven Garfinkel, director of the National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office, told Inside the Pentagon he was initially concerned with the Cohen memo because it raised several questions relating to the implementation of the new policy. Specifically, Garfinkel wanted to know if it applied to other agencies and contractor personnel.

Contractors' access to secret information is covered under the National Industrial Security Program, changes to which require an intensive inter-agency process. So far, Garfinkel was reassured, the new policy applies only to DOD personnel.

However, Hansen said, the Pentagon is reviewing the policy to see how and if it could be extended to contractors under the NISP.

In addition, Hansen said the policy extends only to those with top-secret or special-access clearances because the Pentagon wanted to start the process "with those with access to the most sensitive information." So far, those with secret clearances only are not required to take the oral attestation, but the services are free to extend the policy to them, she added.

Steve Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, questions the policy's extension only to top-secret and special-access personnel. This, he says, "suggests that people who merely handle secret information don't have to be quite as vigilant, which is not necessarily true."

"It's a tiny step in the right direction," says Aftergood, who campaigns for less overall secrecy but tighter controls on the most sensitive information. Leaks, he believes, are indicators of a failing system that is not taken seriously because most of what is stamped secret should not, in fact, be classified.

Of Cohen's new policy, Aftergood says, "It's an attempt to improve security discipline by making the process more self-conscious. The idea is if people stop what they're doing and stand up and say the words, then that will have some effect."

Because it is a new initiative, Aftergood believes, the policy will have "some merit" initially. Over time, however, he predicts the "novelty will wear off" and the secrecy system will continue to be undermined by leaks.

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