Lawmaker seeks to set standards for DHS handling of sensitive unclassified info

Move comes in wake of White House effort to set up consistent system across government for safeguarding sensitive documents.

House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., Thursday introduced legislation that would set parameters for the Homeland Security Department's "controlled unclassified information" designation.

The White House last month issued a long-awaited CUI policy to provide a consistent system in the government for safeguarding sensitive documents that are unclassified. The framework is intended to replace what security experts believe are more than 100 individual agency control markings that have stymied information-sharing within the intelligence community and disclosures to the public.

Under the memorandum, all CUI shall be categorized on a sliding scale of "controlled with standard dissemination," "controlled with specified dissemination," or "controlled enhanced with specified dissemination." Further markings may be approved in special circumstances and several types of security information are exempt from the standardization plan.

Harman's bill codifies President Bush's directive and says the department should start with the presumption that all homeland security information that is not properly classified or marked as CUI should be shared with the public pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.

It states that information should not be designated as CUI to conceal violations of law, avert embarrassment to the government or a federal official, or prevent or delay the release of information that does not require such protection.

The bill, co-sponsored by Intelligence Subcommittee ranking member Dave Reichert, R-Wash., instructs the Homeland Security Department to coordinate with the National Archives and Records Administration as well as state and local governments and watchdog groups to prevent unwarranted classification of information pertaining to defense, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. It also requires the department to assess technologies that can electronically track when documents are deemed CUI and by whom.

The proposal includes training requirements for those who handle CUI, offers incentives for employees to challenge potentially improper classification, and creates penalties for those who fail to comply with department rules.

The measure would require the department to set standards for finished intelligence products that fall into the CUI category and establish an auditing mechanism that randomly and periodically selects and examines CUI from across the department to make sure that classification rules are being followed.

"For too long, fake pseudo-classifications have been springing up government-wide with the result that a huge number of documents were blocked from public view," said Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "This bill will rationalize this process and, hopefully, dramatically increase the transparency of government."

Harman's subcommittee is expected to hold a hearing on CUI Wednesday and plans to mark up the bill shortly thereafter, aides said. The panel will also consider a bill she sponsored in December that is designed to curtail the growing practice of classifying, in her words, "practically everything that moves." Sources anticipate an amendment to that bill as well, which would satisfy some concerns expressed by open government and civil liberties advocates.