Obama directs review of data classifications

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how the government classifies national security information and how officials tag and handle unclassified information that is considered sensitive. Those procedures dictate how information is maintained and shared via the government’s information technology systems.

Obama called for the evaluations in a memo issued May 27 to heads of departments and agencies. The document said the government “must be as transparent as possible and must not withhold information for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment.”

Advocates for open government and security experts frequently cite the over-classification of government data as a problem.

The memo directs Obama’s assistant for national security affairs to review within 90 days the rules for classifying, declassifying and maintaining national security information. Obama requested recommendations and proposals for revising those rules to deal with the following:

  • The appropriate classification, safeguarding, accessibility and declassification of information in an electronic environment.
  • Establishing a national center for collaborative declassification review.
  • Effective ways to address over-classification.
  • The changes needed to improve the sharing of classified information.
  • The restrictions on the reclassification of material that has already been declassified.
  • Other measures that could improve transparency while maintaining the security of the classification and declassification program.

Obama also ordered a review of how agencies mark and handle sensitive but unclassified (SBU) data. The memo states that because agencies have used their own categories for such data, there are more than 107 unique markings and more than 130 labels and ways to handle the information.

In May 2008, President George W. Bush issued a memo that defined the many markings of SBU data as controlled unclassified information and established a way to standardize agency-specific approaches to that data, which is related to terrorism. Obama’s memo calls for an interagency task force composed of senior officials to review the CUI framework.

That task force will review the current processes for categorizing SBU data and consider ways to track how well agencies are adopting the CUI framework and whether its scope should be broadened beyond terrorism-related information to include all SBU data. Obama gave the task force 90 days to come up with recommendations for how the executive branch should proceed with the CUI framework and the information-sharing environment.

The attorney general and the homeland security secretary will lead the interagency task force and work with the secretary of state, the director of national intelligence, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the head of the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, the memo states.

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