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Defense Department Overclassifies Memo On Avoiding Overclassification

from the check-that-out dept

It’s no secret that the US government is often way too secretive. More specifically, it seeks to “overclassify” documents to keep them secret when there’s little reason that they should be. While this may stem from the natural reaction of governments to stay secret, this can have some pretty serious consequences. In fact, there are reasons to suggest that some of our intelligence failings, including the failure to prevent 9/11, came from a lack of communication due to overclassification. Partly to deal with this, President Obama signed the Reducing Over-Classification Act, which required various parts of the federal government to (you guessed it) reduce over-classification. As part of implementing this, federal inspectors general are supposed to “evaluate” the classification policies of the organizations.

The folks over at NextGov note the irony that the Defense Department’s memo (pdf) concerning its IG’s evaluation of its over-classification issue was itself classified as “For Official Use Only” (FOUO). Now, to be fair, FOUO documents are still considered “unclassified,” so you could argue that this isn’t really about overclassification. But, it certainly seems to go against the spirit of the effort, which was to encourage greater information sharing and make it easier for the public to remain informed as well.

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Comments on “Defense Department Overclassifies Memo On Avoiding Overclassification”

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AC12 says:

Overclassification is inevitable.

Overclassification is inevitable.

If you mark something at a lower classification than you should, you (potentially) committed a security violation and bring a big S— storm down upon yourself. It’s a huge pain that kills days of productivity and can cost you your security clearance.

If you overclassify something, essentially nothing happens. It’s potentially a little harder to work with the material (as you may need to use a more secure room/computer), but that’s about it.

So in this world, the default worker reaction is to mark it as the highest potential classification and avoid the massive headache for yourself.

Anonymous Coward says:

You do realize that FOUO basically means “This is an official government document”. Hell, half the time, it doesn’t even mean THAT much.

In all reality though, overclassification of documents isn’t some sort of government conspiracy to hide everything. It’s a side effect of the classification system itself. You have MUCH larger problems from underclassifying something than overclassifying. Classification can ALWAYS be downgraded, and many times, people classify something at the highest rate they can just to play it safe. Upgrading a classification isn’t really realistic. Once it’s on an unclassified system, then upping the classification is an excercise in ignoring reality, not protecting information.

Honestly, as much as it pains me to admit it, I’m kind of agree with ootb on this one. The article is quite lame. However, I’ll chalk that up to people not really knowing the realities of the classification system :p

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In all reality though, overclassification of documents isn’t some sort of government conspiracy to hide everything.

But that it happens is routinely used by government agencies to hide things purely because they indicate wrongdoing of some sort or they would outrage the public.

That’s the problem. Secret documents should be the exception, not the norm.

Anonymous Coward says:

Call me crazy, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with the classification of that memo. It’s clearly fouo because that one paragraph at the bottom of page one is fouo. You know, the one with the name and email address whited out? I’ll bet that because the paragraph (and by extension the document) was fouo, when this document got foi’d, it was really easy for whomever whited that out to find exactly what they had to white out. Seems like this is a perfectly organized piece of bureaucratic literature. I’ll bet with the number of combined man hours that went into producing it, it cost the american tax payer at least $5000.

Anonymous Coward says:

yep, after literally two seconds of wikipedia research, i have verified that the document absolutely deserved to be FOUO’d. If you go to the wikipedia page for FOUO, it says that unclassified information may be exempt from FOIA ‘under exemptions two through nine of the Freedom of Information Act’. And if you look those up on the FOIA page, exemption 6 says, ‘personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy’. So because there was a name and an email address, the memo got FOUO to protect the person from a bunch of jokers on the internet once this thing got FOIA’d. Doesn’t that seem fair?

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So because there was a name and an email address, the memo got FOUO to protect the person from a bunch of jokers on the internet once this thing got FOIA’d.

Umm. Are you aware that it’s SOP that documents obtained through the FOIA have most all personal information redacted anyways? That makes your justification kind of moot (and circular).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, I don’t know any SOPs from any government anything. Was that SOP FOIA’d? If so, I hope the PII was scrubbed out (snicker). But seriously, I imagine that all the FOIAd stuff you’re seeing where the PII was scrubbed probably *should* have been FOUO, and simply wasn’t, due to crappy lazy government employees failing to do their jobs. Maybe I’m wrong though…

Aztecian says:

DoD policy on paper in general

I can’t help it. This reminds me very much of a new policy that came out while I was on active duty (about an eon and a half ago)to reduce the number of forms in use.

Naturally, the way we were supposed to suggest a form be removed was by filling out a new “paperwork reduction suggestion” form.

I wasn’t fast enough to do the obvious, but I was fast enough to win a bet on it. The form vanished within two weeks (light speed for DoD admin). I would love to see the form suggesting its own removal, but I’m certain it was FOUO.

This story would have been better if the memo had actually been classified–and most documents about classification are classified–but I agree it still fits the fossilized culture of secrecy.
Some things change over time, some things don’t.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is a lot of misinformation about the meanting of FOUO, both within and outside the governement.

Historically, it is possible that FOUO meant other things at other times, hence the confusion.

In current practice, FOUO indicates that information within the document may be subject to FOIA Exemptions 2-9. As far as FOIA review for releasability goes, this is a meaningless appellation. All documents that are requested under FOIA are reviewed for any exempt information. So FOUO means nothing with regard to information sharing or openness to the public.

It is purely an instruction for internal handling. It tells the reader that “this document has some sensitive stuff in it, but nothing that might be a threat to national security.” In other words, “handle with care.”

FOUO is not a classification in the same category as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret. Those markings indicate that the information contained therein is a matter of national security. That’s what people are talking about when the term “overclassification” is thrown about.

So, no, this isn’t a case of overclassification. It’s not even really a case of being overly sensitive. In Mike’s defense, half the government thinks FOUO is a meaningful classification, too.

mister anderson (profile) says:

FOUO and Public Release

Here’s something that you may not realize: everything created by the government (or government contractors, in some cases) is FOUO, unless there is a reason to classify the material. What does this mean? Not much really, just that it has to go through the proper channels (e.g. scrubbing for personal data, ITAR, etc.) before it is released to the public.

Seriously, you have to send everything through a public relations review before you can send anything out for general public consumption. I’ve had to do so several times for technical presentations created while working at JPL.

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