White House creates new policy for controlled unclassified information

Executive order intended to help information sharing

President Barack Obama has created a new framework for controlled unclassified information under an executive order .

The framework is intended to help information sharing and disclosure by adopting common standards for protected information. The framework, issued Nov. 4, replaces a number of other markings agencies have used to categorize information, including sensitive but unclassified and for official use only. Those types of markings have increased in number and complexity in recent years, especially since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This inefficient, confusing patchwork has resulted in inconsistent marking and safeguarding of documents, led to unclear or unnecessarily restrictive dissemination policies, and created impediments to authorized information sharing,” the order states. “To address these problems, this order establishes a program for managing this information, hereinafter described as Controlled Unclassified Information, that emphasizes the openness and uniformity of governmentwide practice.”


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The order was preceded by a memorandum from President George W. Bush in December 2005 asking agency leaders to standardize procedures for sensitive but unclassified information.

Several transparency advocacy groups praised Obama’s order, saying it would enhance openness.

“Significantly, the executive order on [controlled unclassified information] does not create any new authority to withhold information from disclosure,” wrote Steven Aftergood on the "Secrecy News" blog.

The order limits the use of the marking to information that is already protected by statute, regulation or governmentwide policy. Also, agencies must get the approval of an executive agent before using the new marking on any particular category of information. All approved categories are to be made public on an official registry, Aftergood said.

In a statement released Nov. 4, OMB Watch officials said the order is a “simple but strong path forward in the effort to rein in the chaotic alphabet soup of unclassified information categories.”

The new policy will help reduce the confusion and loss of transparency that have resulted from multiple markings for sensitive information, they added.

“In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of different Sensitive But Unclassified labels grew, with fewer people understanding exactly what restrictions applied to each label," according to the statement. "The confusion surrounding Sensitive But Unclassified labels ultimately resulted in officials shutting down almost all public access to the information and limiting use even for those who needed it.”

Although Bush’s memo was intended to clarify the situation, it left several gaps, including uncertainty about the definition of controlled unclassified information and uncertainty about public disclosure, OMB Watch officials added.

"This order creates a fair and public process that acknowledges the need for some information control categories while also making clear the need to limit them,” said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "As always, implementation will determine if this policy succeeds or fails."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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