Obama orders uniformity in managing unclassified info

Stephen Miller | Freedom of Information | Feature | November 5, 2010

President Barack Obama released an executive order Thursday calling for a more open and uniform approach to handling unclassified information that is subject to statutory exemptions from full disclosure.

Critical of governmental agencies’ current “inefficient, confusing patchwork” that has resulted in “inconsistent marking and safeguarding of documents” and “impediments to authorized information sharing,” the order appears to strive for a government-wide standard in how sensitive information is categorized for release.

“The huge difference here is the difference between agency policy and government-wide information policy. Under the current system, agencies have been allowed to just make things up,” said Patrice McDermott, director of OpentheGovernment.org.

The new order stresses the importance of marking information subject to closure as “controlled unclassified information” uniformly across the board and doing away with the myriad of agency-specific categories and procedures, of which 117 have been counted.

Currently, agencies use their own set of policies and procedures to control the release of information that involves privacy, security, proprietary business interests and law enforcement investigations, the order said. “The fact that these agency-specific policies are often hidden from public view has only aggravated these issues,” it said.

The order requires that each department and agency head submit a list of categories they use to mark unclassified information for dissemination. The list must include a definition for each category and it must identify the law, regulation or government-wide policy that serves as the basis for withholding the information.

“We think that this is going to really rein in the number of these markings and will get rid of a lot of them,” McDermott said.

If there is any doubt as to whether the information should be considered controlled unclassified information, the order says to err on the side of disclosure.

The order also makes clear that the controlled unclassified information marking does not affect the disclosure of the information through other statutory means.

“The question of whether or not something should be disclosed under FOIA is a separate determination, and just because something is marked CUI [controlled unclassified information] does not mean that it is not released under FOIA,” said Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services.

"This is a huge opportunity to get control of a growing problem, and the president has provided a good vehicle to do just that," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of government transparency advocate OMB Watch in a statement released Thursday. “As always, implementation will determine if this policy succeeds or fails."

Obama placed the execution of his order squarely in the hands of the National Archives and Records Administration, adding a new course to a plate that already includes OGIS and the declassification of some 400 million documents.