Obama panel urges single system for secrets

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2009 1:09 PM

A presidential task force on government secrecy has recommended creating a new government-wide system for categorizing sensitive information to reduce confusion about exactly who should know what.

The recommendations were issued Tuesday by the panel ordered by President Barack Obama to study how the federal government categorizes and defines its secrets. The task force efforts were led by the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department.

Currently, so-called "sensitive but unclassified information" can be labeled under more than 100 different categories, that range from "law enforcement sensitive" to "contractual sensitive information" to "sensitive water vulnerability assessment information."

The task force is recommending a single system for marking and handling those types of information, though it's not yet clear how a new system of categories could encompass everything from grand jury testimony to details about nuclear submarines.

The group also recommends that such a marking system should not affect whether the information can be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, or shared with Congress.

At issue is how to handle information that is not important enough to merit national security secrecy, but important enough that access to it should be restricted in some way.

Toward the end of the Bush administration, officials started tackling the issue, but as a presidential candidate Obama vowed to make government more transparent, in both revealing more information but also providing clearer explanations when information is being withheld.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, a private group that gathers and publishes declassified government documents and lobbies for more open government, applauded the recommendation as "a good start."

"I think there's still some work to be done about what information will actually qualify for the controlled but unclassified information label," said Fuchs. "Overall though, they have a grasp on the problem."

The administration is conducting a separate review on how the government decides to brand certain information "secret" or "top secret."