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Energy Officials Were Confused About Secrecy Surrounding Electric Grid

Inspector general says warnings on handling of classified details went unheeded.

Despite the well-known risk that terrorists could target the nation’s electric grid, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission displayed confusion last summer over whether to publicly disclose details of a “vulnerability analysis” of the nationwide electric grid, according to the Energy Department’s inspector general.

“While commission officials took steps to identify and segregate the potentially classified documentation, they did not take immediate action to obtain an original classification decision of the information or documentation in question after” the IG’s April 2014 management alert about the problem, the watchdog said in a report dated Jan. 30 but released Wednesday. “The absence of an initial classification decision put the commission at risk of adverse public scrutiny for the unauthorized disclosure of nonpublic information.”

The watchdog began the investigation by request of a Senate committee chairman and FERC’s ethics officer after questions over classification of the vulnerability analysis were raised beginning in July 2013. In February 2014, national news organizations mentioned comments on “sensitive internal information” by a former FERC chairman that current FERC staff warned could have “significant national energy implications.”

The review found “conflicting information about whether industry and federal officials were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, whether industry and federal officials viewed electronic versus hard copy presentations, and the reference to specific details such as locations included in the presentations.

To improve such classification decisions, the IG recommended better training for commission employees in how they handle sensitive information and security clearances, as well as improvements in the dissemination of information about proper procedures for securing information.

FERC managers agreed with the IG’s recommendations and said corrective actions were already being pursued.

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