OMB Watch Lauds President Obama’s Executive Order on Controlled Unclassified Information

-For Immediate Release-
November 4, 2010

Contact: Brian Gumm, (202) 683-4812,

OMB Watch Lauds President Obama’s Executive Order
on Controlled Unclassified Information

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2010—Today, the White House released a new executive order on controlled unclassified information (CUI) that deserves genuine praise as a simple but strong path forward in the effort to rein in the chaotic alphabet soup of unclassified information categories.

In the not-so-distant past, records known as Sensitive But Unclassified information (SBU) were labeled by agencies to indicate the supposed need for special handling to protect the information. The labels were meant to make government employees’ jobs easier. However, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of different SBU labels grew, with fewer people understanding exactly what restrictions applied to each label. The confusion surrounding SBU labels ultimately resulted in officials shutting down almost all public access to the information and limiting use even for those who needed it.

In May 2008, President George W. Bush issued a memo that replaced the numerous SBU labels with a uniform designation called "controlled unclassified information." The goal was to standardize practices and improve information sharing among government officials. However, several SBU-related problems were left unaddressed by Bush’s memo, such as the lack of clarity in the definition of CUI and the uncertainty of a label’s impact on public disclosure.

The Obama order addresses these problems. Instead of attempting to dictate and define a specific set of categories, the order mandates a process by which agencies must review their non-classified information categories and submit those they wish to keep to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for review. The categories must cite a specific justification in statute, regulation, or government-wide policy.

NARA’s review will attempt to impose order by rejecting unfounded and unnecessary categories, combining similar categories across agencies, and clarifying just what fits into each category and what does not. Within a year of the order, NARA must publicly publish a registry of the approved CUI categories, including clear definitions.

The approach required by the executive order will likely result in more CUI categories than currently exist. However, the categories that will emerge from this process should be narrower and more specific in their application.

The three most important components of the Obama order are:

  • The inclusion of a clear statement that CUI labels have no effect on disclosure decisions under FOIA, nor should they be a barrier to sharing information with legislative or judicial offices
  • The requirement that CUI categories stem from existing statute, regulation, or government-wide policy, which should eliminate vague and meaningless category labels, such as For Official Use Only (FOUO)
  • Establishing a public forum to disclose and review the CUI categories and requiring a public registry of categories, as well as the possibility for public consultations before category approvals

Gary D. Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, said, "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. As always, implementation will determine if this policy succeeds or fails."

Bass continued, "These information categories often interfere with government use of information as well as public access to information. OMB Watch hopes agencies will see the benefit of fewer and narrower categories and work with NARA to produce a tight, workable CUI registry." He concluded, "This is a huge opportunity to get control of a growing problem, and the president has provided a good vehicle to do just that."

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OMB Watch is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting government accountability, citizen participation in public policy decisions, and the use of fiscal and regulatory policy to serve the public interest. Find OMB Watch on Facebook and Twitter.

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