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Here’s a new one to add to the federal government’s blizzard of acronyms: CUI.

It stands for “Controlled Unclassified Information” and it’s the latest designation the Bush Administration has chosen for a sprawling class of materials and documents that falls short of meeting the standards to be stamped as classified, but which for one reason or another is considered sensitive.

The new CUI designation was announced two Fridays ago, while the President was in Texas for Jenna’s wedding, in a memorandum from the White House. Be advised: the memo doesn’t make for light reading. [Late Update: It was first reported by Kos contributing editor Michael Clark.]

As Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post, CUI replaces SBU: Sensitive But Unclassified. The SBU framework was a mess:

“Among the 20 departments and agencies . . . surveyed, there are at least 107 unique markings and more than 131 different labeling or handling processes and procedures for SBU information,” Ted McNamara of the office of the director of national intelligence told the House Homeland Security Committee in April 2007.

The Archives was asked to create a single set of policies and procedures on the way materials should be marked, stored safely and disseminated. There are to be three categories of dissemination — standard, specified and enhanced specified. The latter two require measures to reduce possible disclosure.

If the ostensible reason for the new designation is intended to regularize and standardize the system for handling that vast trove of unclassified data, there are nonetheless other reasons why the most secretive administration in history might be interested in this sweeping new designation.

For one, it may help shield information otherwise subject to FOIA from disclosure, at least indirectly. It will be a factor in determining disclosure:

The Archives will establish “enforcement mechanisms and penalties for improper handling of CUI.” The “controlled” classification “may inform,” but will not determine, whether information can be made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Secondly, as Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, notes:

[Th]e definition of what information may qualify as CUI, which includes anything that “under law or policy” requires protection from unauthorized disclosure, is vague and expansive.

The saving grace may be that many of the hard decisions about how CUI will work have not been made, and likely won’t be made until after President Bush leaves office. So federal officials may dodge one of the memo’s more comical requirements: “oral communications should be prefaced with a statement describing the controls when necessary to ensure that recipients are aware of the information’s status.”

It’s a requirement that leads the Post‘s Pincus to imagine the absurd scenario where one government official talking to another about terrorists will have to preface the conversation with: “What I am about to tell you is controlled unclassified information enhanced with specified dissemination.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.