WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The Bush administration is preparing for the huge task of adopting a single new government-wide set of standards for information that is not secret, but which officials still want to control.
According to a briefing prepared for congressional staff, and seen by United Press International, the new system will replace dozens of different categories of restricted data with just three new ones. Four existing categories will be grandfathered in.
Officials say the cost of the changeover is classified (not just restricted) because it involves some spending by the nation's intelligence agencies, but -- in the words of one -- is "in the millions, not billions."
These types of restricted information, collectively called "sensitive but unclassified" or "controlled, unclassified information" are managed under "an ungoverned body of policies that confuses both producers and users," according to the briefing.
Over many years, and especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an overlapping, inconsistent and sometimes contradictory forest of categories and markings has sprung up, agency-by-agency, as officials have sought to restrict access to various types of information.
The restrictions cover all kinds of documents from the routine daily schedules of senior officials to grand-jury transcripts or witness-protection information.
The result, government figures show, is more than 100 separate categories of information, each with its own unique rationale and handling and distribution restrictions. In some cases, the same term, "security sensitive" for instance, can mean different things in different agencies.
Officials say this underbrush of regulations is inhibiting the sharing of terrorism information within the federal government and between it and state and local agencies -- a major recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission later mandated by Congress. Moreover, says the briefing document, the confusion means that restricted information is sometimes shared more widely than it should be.
The new system will be managed by an executive agent within the federal government, says the briefing, which was prepared by the office of Thomas McNamara, the program manager for the Information Sharing Environment.
Officials say the recommendations for the new system, which envisage a five-year transition period, were completed four months ago but have stalled in the White House.
A spokesman for McNamara, John Cohen, told UPI only that the office "has submitted our recommendations, and they are being reviewed through the White House process."
If and when the president signs the order, the three new categories will rate information according to "safeguards" -- how it should be stored, handled and transmitted -- and "dissemination" -- who is allowed to see it.
The lowest-ranked category, which congressional staff said would be roughly equivalent to the current "for official use only" markings, would be called "standard safeguards, standard dissemination." After that comes "standard safeguards, specific dissemination," which is handled in the same way but which fewer people are entitled to see.
The most-protected category will be "enhanced safeguards, specific dissemination," but the executive agent will be empowered to create more categories within the new framework if necessary.
The four categories that will be grandfathered in are Safeguards Information, which is material the Nuclear Regulatory Commission believes poses a threat to public health and safety; Security Sensitive Information, the controversial category created by the Transportation Security Administration; and Protected Critical Infrastructure Information and Chemical-Terrorism Vulnerability Information, which are types of data about security vulnerabilities collected from the private sector by the Department of Homeland Security.
The details of the new categories and the old ones to be grandfathered in are contained on two pages of the briefing marked "Deliberative/Pre-decisional" -- one of the old categories of exactly the type being replaced by the new system.
One congressional staffer called that an "irony," but added, "That's one of the categories of information (officials) will still find difficult to put into the (information) sharing pipeline, despite their professed enthusiasm for the new regime."
The staffer noted that one feature of the new system was that nothing released under the Freedom of Information Act could ever be restricted under it.
The staffer said the initiative was "a good start at clearing the SBU underbrush." But he said that "real success will depend on the testicular fortitude of the executive agent."
"Just rebranding all the clutter in the current SBU pile won't really fix much," concluded the staffer.