(CN) - Officials responsible for assessing the nation's secrets averaged more than two errors per classified document, the Justice Department found in its first audit of a more than $9.7 billion system.
The technocratic report did not chime in on raging controversy over how the classification system limits public debate.
Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg's disclosures of a hidden history of the Vietnam War to The New York Times first propelled excessive government secrecy into the news in the 1970s.
Recently, Army Private Chelsea Manning's record-breaking leaks of Iraq and Afghanistan war reports, Guantanamo detainee profiles, diplomatic cables and other information to WikiLeaks, and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden massive revelations about government surveillance have brought the issue back into public attention.
The Justice Department's audit frames the history of overclassification around the Sept. 11, 2001 Commission Report, which determined that intelligence hoarding by agencies contributed to the attacks and recommended greater information sharing. Congress noted this finding in the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2010. The legislation referred in passing to "public access to information," but it mostly called for more communication between government agencies. The statute ordered the Justice Department's inspector general to issue two reports.
Released on Monday, the first report sampled 141 documents to find a total of 357 marking errors. Fields listing whom a document was "Classified by," where it was "Derived from," or instructions on how to declassify its contents contained missing, incomplete or wrong information, according to the audit.
Though inspector general Michael Horowitz said he "did not find indications of widespread misclassification," the examples of wrongly classified information are evocative.
In one case, an FBI official classified a terrorist watch list, which is supposed to be public information, the audit said. This official told the inspector general that he "was following previous work experience practices from another Intelligence Community agency." Its identity is never revealed, but "other government agency" is a common euphemism for the CIA.
An official from Justice Department's National Security Division, a division tasked with processing applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, shielded unclassified laws, statutes and designations from otherwise classified documents.
This employee told the inspector general that disclosing these details could "expose the nature of a classified program."
The first of Snowden's disclosures printed by The Guardian involved a highly classified order of the FISA Court about the NSA's mass collection of the telephony metadata of Verizon users. It is unclear whether the program that the National Security Division Official hoped to protect was related or even involved an NSA program.
Nobody at the Justice Department's Office Inspector General was able to field questions due to the shutdown of the federal government.
Steven Aftergood, the director for the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, called the audit "a useful exercise that identified some significant flaws in Justice classification practices," in an email.
But he added that the department's "narrow definition" of overclassification concentrated too much on "administrative kinds of issues-such as, the proper marking of documents, the distinction between 'original' and 'derivative' classification, and similar concerns.
"These are important, but they don't get to the root of the problem of overclassification," Aftergood wrote. "The root of problem is not technical errors in classification, but mistakes in judgment about what to classify."
Documents like the "Office of Legal Counsel memoranda, FISA court opinions, and the like" may not be "overclassified in the sense of being marked improperly, but in the sense that sound public policy dictates their release, at least in some form."
He noted that the audit does not discuss any of these issues.
"So in a way, it is a missed opportunity," he said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.