WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, blasted the Department of Education (ED) for misusing the “Controlled Unclassified Information” (CUI) designation to conceal information from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report regarding potential fraud risks in its previous student loan cancellation scheme. Despite information being withheld, the report released earlier today still showed that the Biden administration was prepared to transfer $430 billion in student loan debt onto taxpayers with little guardrails to verify borrowers’ income to determine eligibility for student debt cancelation.
Prior to the release of the report, GAO informed congressional staff that ED designated some portions of its report as Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI), preventing it from being released to the public.
After congressional staff reviewed an unamended copy of the report it was clear these changes and the CUI designation were unwarranted. Regardless, ED’s use of CUI led GAO to change and even delete information that was previously included in the report.
The senators raised serious concerns that the Biden administration is attempting to manipulate GAO reports to prevent the release of potentially embarrassing information that could reveal a more concerning picture of the Biden administration’s irresponsible student loan schemes.
“As members of Congress, we recognize the need to protect highly sensitive information from public release when it poses a threat to public safety or is required by statute. When there is no legitimate basis for safeguarding information, however, it is important to ensure maximum transparency for the American people,” wrote the senators. “The Executive Branch should never unnecessarily apply its own designations just to hide material from the public because it is embarrassing or difficult to explain.”
Read the full letter here or below:
Dear Secretary Cardona:
In October 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) informed our offices that the Department of Education (ED) is applying the Executive Branch’s Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) designation to content in GAO reports slated for public release.
Our concerns relate to GAO’s November 16, 2023 report, “Student Loans: Education Should Proactively Manage Fraud Risks in Any Future Debt Relief Efforts.” During its review of the public release version of this report, ED applied the CUI designation to entire sentences, and, in one case, an entire footnote. GAO made changes to its report to address ED’s concerns. Our staff reviewed an unamended version of GAO’s report and were unable to determine a reasonable justification for ED’s CUI classifications.
We also understand that ED attempted to apply the CUI designation to materials associated with another draft report that GAO is preparing, including information that ED itself previously made public. This raises serious questions about the review process that ED follows when examining GAO reports. It also raises concerns that ED may be using the CUI designation to sanitize embarrassing or otherwise unfavorable information in GAO reports and shield it from public release.
As you know, GAO is “[l]ocated in the legislative branch” and “is an independent agency that provides Congress with objective, nonpartisan, and evidence-based information, analysis, and recommendations.” In this capacity, GAO’s work helps Congress to inform the public about how the government is operating. The work that GAO completes in response to legislative mandates is publicly available as soon as it is issued to Congress, and unclassified GAO reports are made available to the public at no cost.
As members of Congress, we recognize the need to protect highly sensitive information from public release when it poses a threat to public safety or is required by statute. When there is no legitimate basis for safeguarding information, however, it is important to ensure maximum transparency for the American people. The Executive Branch should never unnecessarily apply its own designations just to hide material from the public because it is embarrassing or difficult to explain.
We have serious questions about the process that ED followed when conducting its sensitivity review of this report. We also have serious concerns that ED has been improperly applying the Executive Branch’s CUI designation.
In order for Congress to ensure that ED and the GAO are providing the American people as much transparency as possible, we ask that you respond to the following, on a question-by-question basis, no later than November 30, 2023.
1. Please provide a detailed description of the process that ED follows when conducting sensitivity reviews of GAO reports prior to their public release.
2. Please include the names and positions of senior ED officials who are involved in the review process.
3. Does ED follow the National Archives and Records Administration’s Marking Controlled Unclassified Information handbook?
4. Please provide copies of all internal policies, guidance documents, and memoranda pertaining to ED’s use and application of the CUI designation.
5. Please provide all versions of GAO’s November 16, 2023 report, “Student Loans: Education Should Proactively Manage Fraud Risks in Any Future Debt Relief Efforts” (the report) which contain banner markings and related notes. These documents should clearly indicate the CUI categories and safeguarding and/or dissemination authorities used.
6. Please provide a written explanation of why ED believes the CUI designations it applied to the report are necessary and appropriate.
7. Please provide all communications between ED and GAO relating to ED’s sensitivity review of the report.
8. Did ED recently mark information associated with a GAO draft report as CUI even though the information was publicly available? If yes, please explain the circumstances that led to this mistake and provide an accounting of actions that ED has taken to update its policies and procedures in response.
9. Please provide all versions of prior GAO reports regarding fraud vulnerabilities in Federal Student Aid programs (listed below), which contain any notes from ED regarding any prior CUI designations.