Report seeks classification guidance

“Unintended Audience: Balancing Openness and Secrecy”

A couple of years ago when federal government officials got wind of Sean Gorman's dissertation -- which provided a detailed map of the nation's fiber-optic network -- they wanted to classify it.

Although Gorman, then a George Mason University student, used public records to compile his map, government officials contended if the information fell into terrorist hands it could potentially be used to attack the country. University officials said they would ensure that the data is secure and protected. Even former cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke was quoted as saying the student should turn the paper in, get a grade and then burn it.

But the example underscores a larger problem about unclassified but sensitive data found in the public, academic, and private arenas that could pose a security risk. There has been a mixed practice of dealing with such types of data, said Jacques Gansler, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

Gansler and his colleague William Lucyshyn, a visiting senior research scholar and a current research director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently released a 76-page report that calls for new federal guidelines that balance the need for greater security with society's need for openness.

"Right now, there's a lot of ambiguity," said Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from 1997 to 2001.

He said he does not know of any integrated federal approach to create a comprehensive and consistent policy for the classification of such information. When situations such as Gorman's dissertation come to light, the federal government usually errs on the side of classifying information. That is not necessarily always a good thing.

"In general, what I'm afraid of is that it's right now heading in the direction of overly restricting information rather than openness," he said. "In other words, if you let the security people to make the decisions you go pretty hard over in one direction. And the United States can suffer significantly by closing down some of what has been restrained [and hamper] our ability to research and to share data, for example."

The report outlines a framework that Gansler described as a limited beginning. It calls for the president, in consultation with the Homeland Security and Justice departments, to issue an executive order that identifies the types of information -- relating to weapons of mass destruction, critical infrastructure, intelligence and security -- as Controlled Unclassified Security Information (CUSI).

The CUSI classification would enable individuals and organizations across the public, private and academic sectors apply a consistent policy on what they could share but also allow the federal government or others to identify analyze interdependencies and potentially mitigate vulnerabilities.

Gansler and Lucyshyn also call for an effort to educate personnel about the concepts, rules and guidelines of CUSI as well as provide an appeals process to allow a review on a case-by-case basis.

The private and academic sectors are concerned about the Gorman incident, Gansler said. Many observers fear that students, professors or employees from foreign countries may be denied access to sensitive material needed for research and development.

For example, a large percentage of a software or medical research company may have a professional staff that is foreign. The companies are concerned they may not have access to certain types of research or might not be able to publish sensitive research. That doesn't mean all research should be available because somebody might come up with a new pathogen that you don't want published, he said.

"There are valid concerns in this area but it should be very limited," he said. "And the fear is it won't be limited. They'll err on the side of making sure that anything that possibly could be used by a terrorist will therefore be instantly classified."

Another problem is determining penalties. For example, if the George Mason University student decided to publish his dissertation with sensitive information, Gansler said the student might never get a security clearance to work in the federal government. And officials need to figure out what to do with sensitive-but-nonclassified material.

"What if this guy from GMU has been told he can't publish it but he's not been told what do I do with all the material gathered? Do I put it under lock and key? Do I have to have a security guard outside and so forth? It's largely a matter of codification, of what fits under that category -- preferably very limited -- and how to control it what penalties might exist," Gansler said.

He said the issue is not an easy one to grapple with, but that the federal government has to address it in a more systematic approach.

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