Not Quite Classified

The Obama administration’s Task Force on Controlled Unclassified Information has, per the president’s request in a May 2009 executive memorandum, returned a set of recommendations for reforming a lesser known aspect of government information policy. (PDF here)

Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) and the closely related Sensitive But Unclassified information (SBU) do not meet the government’s standards for formal classification. But other laws, regulations, or agency policies have designated it for special handling or protection.

An appendix with a 107 item partial listing of SBU/CUI markings offers a glimpse of the breadth of information falling under one SBU category or another, with labels like “LIMITED OFFICIAL USE-LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE,” “NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION SAFEGUARDS INFORMATION (SGI),” and “TRADE SENSITIVE INFORMATION.”

But there’s precious little oversight of what gets slotted into the categories, or how information should be treated once it’s so labeled. With no standardization of categories or handling instructions, information sharing between agencies is problematic.

The task force’s 40 recommendations include moving to a standard set of government-wide markings, and for making clear that designating a piece of information as SBU has no effect on whether or not it will be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Much of the responsibility for getting a handle on CUI will fall to a National Archives and Records Administration division created in 2008, which is now charged with coordinating the development of the new standards, and then training for and monitoring them.

For a thorough look at the task force’s report, see the always valuable Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.