House Passes Bills to Facilitate Declassification

On July 29, 2008, the House of Representatives passed a series of bills designed to facilitate public access to unclassified records. Some of the bills are expected to be rolled into a larger reauthorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security later this year.

In the spring, the White House released a new policy attempting to standardize procedures for the treatment of what is referred to as “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU) information. The memorandum issued by the president adopts, defines and institutes “Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI)” as the new standard for the treatment of such information. There are currently over 100 different markings for sensitive information that has led to over-classification. The new CUI policy would reduce that to three categories.

H.R. 6193, the “Improving Public Access to Documents Act of 2008,” would create a standard format for unclassified intelligence products created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS would be required to consult with the National Archives and Records Administration to create the CUI standard format. All such unclassified intelligence information that has been designated as CUI would have to be prepared in that standard format. The DHS Inspector General would have the authority to randomly select CUI documents to ensure compliance with the new directives. DHS employees would be empowered to challenge the use of CUI markings. DHS would also maintain a publicly available list of documents designated or marked as CUI.

H.R. 4806, the “Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2008,” directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and implement a DHS-wide strategy to prevent the over-classification of information. The bill requires DHS, in consultation with NARA, to create standard classified and unclassified formats for finished intelligence products created by DHS. All finished intelligence products would be simultaneously prepared in the standard unclassified format.

H.R. 6576 seeks to increase Government-wide information sharing and the availability of information to the public by standardizing and limiting the use of information control designations. The bill’s sponsor, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, has said the White House’s CUI policy is limited to “terrorism-related information,” and his bill is designed to address all types of information across the government. H.R. 6576 directs the Archivist of the United States to consult with federal agencies and to promulgate regulations to develop and implement new information control designations.

H.R. 3815 would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish an open source collection, analysis, and dissemination program within the Department.