Sensitive but Unclassified

Last week officials from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requested a meeting with various public interest groups concerned with public access to government information. The purpose was to discuss OMB’s upcoming efforts to define the category of "sensitive but unclassified" for government information. This vague term generated a great deal of confusion and concern among information advocates when addressed in a memo prepared at the request of Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff. Card released a memo on March 19, instructing agency and department heads to undergo "an immediate reexamination" of current measures for identifying and protecting information on weapons of mass destruction as well as "other information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people." A second memo was attached that provided guidance for the process. The guidance urged agencies to look at their classified, reclassified and declassified information, but also created a new and vague category, called "sensitive but unclassified." The guidance stated, "The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis." OMB is now preparing to draft the definition of this term -- or a similar term such as "homeland security sensitive" information -- and clarify its role in information management. Before starting, OMB plans to meet with various constituencies concerned about information and access policies, such as the one mentioned above, and a group of academic representatives. A very broad representation of public interest organizations attended the meeting with groups representing librarians, reporters, newspapers, privacy advocates and the academic community. OMB officials assured attendees that the draft definition would be published in the Federal Register with an opportunity for public comment. However, OMB officials were less than clear about everything else. They were unclear about the exact timeline for this guidance, the current thinking for the scope of the term, or exactly with whom else they would be meeting. Only time will tell.
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