Less Alphabet Soup, Maybe, but Less Transparency

Back in January we wrote about the pending new rules for federal agencies for control of information considered sensitive but not classified. We were told that the purpose of the new policy was to ease information-sharing between agencies, most particularly information related to terrorism. Some of our brethren were perhaps over-optimistic in hoping the new rules would make more info available to the press and public.

Yes, we admit that even we briefly dared to hope. But our cranky skepticism seems to have been justified. Now the blogger smintheus has called to our attention the White House memo to all heads of agencies and departments on the designation and sharing of what had previously been called SBU for Sensitive But Unclassified Information. The new rules were finally issued on Friday while most of the White House was giddy with wedding doin's down at the ranch.

What's disappointing, if not entirely surprising, is that the Friday memo does not seem to follow either the letter or the spirit of earlier testimony by the administration's Program Manager for the ODNI Information Sharing Environment, Amb. Ted McNamara. Calling the current situation "unacceptable," McNamara had pointed out that the category of unclassified but regulated information had grown haphazardly and was treated differently at virtually every federal agency. He told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence in April 2007: "Among the twenty departments and agencies we have surveyed, there are at least 107 unique markings and more than 131 different labeling or handling processes." McNamara had indicated that he thought a large amount of government information would become releasable.

Clearly something needed to be done to rationalize the situation. McNamara proposed, and the White House has now accepted, that henceforth all such info will be referred to as Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). As smintheus aptly points out, already we have the presumption that the information will be "controlled."

The definition of CUI could not be more amorphous: info that is "pertinent to the national interests of the United States or to the important interests of entities outside the Federal Government." You can see that almost any factoid could be massaged to fall into that category. As smintheus pointed out, what could be more vague than "pertinent"?

Under the memo's taxonomy, CUI would be treated according to the amount of protection and handling needed. The designations are based on whether it needs "Standard" or "Enhanced" Safeguarding; and "Standard" or "Specified" Dissemination. That means there will be three categories: Standard/Standard; Standard/Specified; Enhanced/Specified. (It was determined that Enhanced Safeguarding with Standard Dissemination would violate logic.)

Steve Aftergood points out in his Secrecy News today that "the new policy will do nothing to restore public access to government records that have been improperly withheld…To put it another way, the CUI policy does not exclude anything that is currently controlled as Sensitive But Unclassified. This is a disappointment in light of previous suggestions that wholesale disclosures of currently controlled unclassified information might ensue."

Although the first paragraph of the White House memo declares that the purpose of the new rules is "to standardize practices and thereby improve the sharing of information, not to classify or declassify new or additional information," we fear the actual practice will be to remove from public view vast new categories of government information.

We are also disappointed because the Open Government community had previously written to the White House, asking for a public comment period, but that has not been provided in this memo. Again, we know we're old-fashioned, but we think the public should have at least some say in how their information is handled.