from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 116
December 20, 2005


In an initiative with potentially significant implications for public access to government information, the White House has told executive branch agencies to develop standard procedures for handling of "sensitive but unclassified" information.

"To promote and enhance the effective and efficient acquisition, access, retention, production, use, management, and sharing of Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) information, including homeland security information, law enforcement information, and terrorism information, procedures and standards for designating, marking, and handling SBU information must be standardized across the Federal Government," according to a December 16 White House memorandum.

Agencies are required to assess their procedures for handling SBU and report on them to the Director of National Intelligence within 90 days.

Within a year, the DNI, with other agency heads, is to present recommendations for the President's approval on standardized SBU procedures.

As a result of the White House initiative, the category of "sensitive but unclassified" is poised to become the government's largest single information control category.

Yet there is no generally accepted definition of "sensitive."

The President's directive does not acknowledge the reality that agencies often consider information sensitive for political or bureaucratic reasons unrelated to legitimate security or privacy concerns. Nor does the new White House memorandum consider that some kinds of admittedly sensitive information should nevertheless be publicly disclosed to promote government efficiency and accountability.

The complexity of these issues may in fact be insurmountable.

The development of uniform government-wide procedures for SBU is "far too big a task to come to fruition," a senior government official who first disclosed the interagency effort told Secrecy News (12/12/05).

The President's December 16 memorandum, "Guidelines and Requirements in Support of the Information Sharing Environment," including Guideline 3 on Standard Procedures for SBU, is available here:


The controversy over reported domestic surveillance activity by the National Security Agency has continued to build, as some new details and some nuances that were previously missed (by Secrecy News, at any rate) became apparent.

For one thing, as we should have noted yesterday, the operation is limited to communications in which one party is outside the U.S.

"The authorization given to NSA by the President requires that one end of these communications has to be outside the United States. I can assure you, by the physics of the intercept, by how we actually conduct our activities, that one end of these communications are always outside the United States of America," said Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael V. Hayden at a press briefing yesterday. See:

Meanwhile, the President's assertion that he possesses inherent constitutional authority to conduct such surveillance, while objectionable to some, is not made up out of whole cloth (though its full scope is uncertain).

A November 2002 FIS Court of Review decision acknowledged "the President's inherent constitutional authority to conduct warrantless foreign intelligence surveillance." See that decision here:

But the President's claim that members of Congress had somehow signed off on the action was exposed as hollow.

"Leaders in the United States Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this program," the President said yesterday.

Yet one of those leaders, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, released a handwritten note he sent to Vice President Cheney in 2003 recording his dismay at the program and his inability to endorse it. See:


When capture or abandonment of a U.S. military aircraft is imminent, "any classified documents, notes, instructions, or other written material... must be destroyed in a manner to render them useless to the enemy."

Apropos of nothing in particular, the Army has republished a 1971 technical manual on "Procedures for the Destruction of Aircraft and Associated Equipment to Prevent Enemy Use."

A copy is available here:


This is really, almost certainly the last issue of Secrecy News for 2005. Happy holidays.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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