Executive Order seeks to simplify document classification

Wednesday - 11/10/2010, 6:24am EST

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A newly issued Executive Order gives agencies a new way to mark and protect documents containing sensitive information.

The new marking, called Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI), replaces more than 40 markings used haphazardly across government from FOUO to SBU to confidential.

Jay Bosanko, director of the Controlled Unclassified Information Office at the National Archives and Records Administration, is responsible for overseeing how agencies implement the Executive Order 13556, which supersedes a similar directive from the previous Bush administration.

"This is an opportunity to move away from the ad-hoc, agency-centric approach that agencies have used in the past," he said in an interview with Federal News Radio. "If you think, over time, when we had to deal with paper, we worked in an environment of memos and letters, it was okay to have an agency-centric approach of how we manage sensitive information. But in 2010, it's absurd."

Bosanko said the main difference between the two orders is scope.

"The 2008 CUI policy that only pertained to terrorism-related information inside the information sharing environment, essentially 17 agencies," Bosanko said. "The problem with that was what's terrorism-related information? With President Obama's Executive Order, we removed all that confusion, and basically said any information, regardless of where it is that requires safeguarding or dissemination control, falls under this Executive Order."

Bosanko added to help agencies adjust to the new controlled unclassified information policy, there's a new website - Archives.gov/cui.

"There, you'll find the Executive Order, some talking points," he said. "There's a two-page PDF that's specific to departments and agencies as far as what does this mean for them, what do they have to do in order to implement this."

Bosanko also said that going forward, his office will be working with agencies as a resource to determine which documents need the protection of the CUI framework, NARA will build a publicly-available registry to catalogue all of the different classification categories.

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy with OMB Watch in Washington, said the new policy "should be a win-win for the agencies, for the public and for the Archives."

OMB Watch is one of the many open government organizations that have been pressing for better classified information policies and guidelines from the government.

Moulton said he likes the idea that the Executive Order provides an opportunity to clear out the clutter of too many classification categories.

"We needed some centralizing force to come in, pull everything together, sweep out all the unnecessary categories, create some consistency among the categories that are left, so everyone is working from the same page, and so we very much welcome this," he said.

Patrice McDermott, president of the Open the Government Coalition, which represents more than 70 open government advocacy groups, said the new order will push agencies into better, more consistent document classifications.

"They will have to defend any of their current markings as being in accord with a statute, or a regulation, and a regulation has usually been authorized by a statute, or a governmentwide information policy," she said.

McDermott pointed to one very public -- and very embarrassing -- moment for the White House that vividly shows the need for the controlled unclassified information program, and how it will facilitate information sharing not only among federal agencies, but with state and local officials as well. .

During the early months of the Obama administration, someone at the White House thought it would be a good idea to fly Air Force One over the Statue of Liberty in New York for a promotional video. McDermott recalled that the flyover created controversy in a metro area still recovering from the horrific events of Sept. 11 involving jet planes.

McDermott said ironically the ensuing panic could have been avoided.

"They (the federal government) had shared information with the folks up there, but it was marked something like 'sensitive but unclassified,'" she said. "And the people there had no idea what to do with it, and so they withheld it They withheld it from the police, they withheld it from the press, and it caused a great deal of anxiety in the public, and a lot of trouble for local officials, and subsequently, a lot of trouble for the White House."

OMB Watch's Moulton said that while the order is just about everything he could hope for, NARA should consider training to help agency officials better understand how to implement the new controlled unclassified information document category.

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