A 267-page document listing all U.S. civilian nuclear sites along with descriptions of their assets and activities became available on whistleblower Web site Wikileaks.org days after a government Web site publicly posted the data by accident.
The sensitive, but unclassified, data had been compiled as part of a report being prepared by the federal government for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It was scheduled to be transmitted to the agency later this year and was sent for congressional review by President Obama on May 5, according to a report in the New York Times.
The document, which had been marked by the president as "Highly Confidential Safeguards Sensitive," subsequently appears to have, for some unexplained reason, been publicly posted by the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) on its Web site, the Times said. The document has since been taken down but is now available from several locations via Wikileaks.org.
The document was discovered on the GPO Web site on May 22 by Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' (FAS) Project on Government Secrecy. Aftergood on Monday posted the document on Secrecy News, a publication of the FAS that he maintains.
The breached document is titled The List of Sites, Locations, Facilities, and Activities Declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and contains detailed information on hundreds of civilian nuclear sites in the country, including those storing enriched uranium. The report lists details on programs at nuclear weapons research labs at Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia.
A message to Congress from Obama at the beginning of the document states that "appropriate measures" have been taken to ensure that no information of "direct national security significance" has been included in the document. While the IAEA classification for such declarations is "Highly Confidential Safeguards Sensitive," the U.S. considers the data "sensitive but unclassified," the president said in his letter.
Aftergood, in an interview, said he spotted the document during a "routine review" of new GPO publications. While scanning through the latest releases on May 22, Aftergood said he saw the one on the nuclear sites.
"I thought, 'wow, that's interesting' and grabbed it," he said. After scanning through the contents, Aftergood said he was puzzled that the GPO had publicly posted the document despite the cover letter from the president indicating that the information was sensitive and not to be disclosed.
"I don't understand how it could be that the GPO had nevertheless proceeded to publish it," he said. He added that it was apparently only after reporters started asking the GPO about the document on its Web site that it was taken down at around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
"I should say I didn't regard the document as a security concern having reviewed it," he said. "I did find it interesting, but I didn't see anything there that constitutes a breach of security."
Breach went undetected by government
Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore, who advises several government agencies on cybersecurity issues, said one of the most troubling aspects about the incident is that the government didn't notice the breach till it was alerted to it by reporters. The incident speaks to a lack of process within the GPO for dealing with sensitive data at a time when the current administration is pushing government agencies to be more transparent, he said.
"The federal government is trying to push out more data, but they need to make sure they have the processes in place first," to prevent such accidents, Pescatore said.
In a statement sent via e-mail, a GPO spokesman provided no explanation for why a document marked as sensitive and not for publication by the president was publicly posted.
But the statement suggested that the accident may have stemmed from the sheer volume of such reports that the GPO processes. On average, the GPO produces "approximately 160 House documents each Congress," the statement said. During the 109th Congress, the GPO produced 157 reports, while in the 110th Congress, 161 reports were published, the statement said. The one listing nuclear sites "was received by GPO in the normal process and produced under routine operating procedures," the statement said.
"Upon being informed about potential sensitive nature of the attachment in this document, the Public Printer of the United States removed it from GPO's website pending further review," the statement said. "After consulting with the White House and Congress, it was determined that the document including the sensitive attachment [should] be removed from the website," it added.