Classifying a document? Mean what you say

Twenty years ago, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission made
headlines by announcing a plan to throw into the Potomac River all the rubber stamps used
by his agency. He said that this was the only effective way to eliminate the stamping of
documents as confidential.

A similar pronouncement today might not generate the same degree of publicity. Instead,
it might bring a citation from the Environmental Protection Agency for illegal dumping.

Regardless, rubber stamps are rather old-fashioned in the computer era. The same
designations can be added in a variety of ways through word processors.

The stamping of agency documents—via ink or inkjet—is one of those low-level
but persistent practices of bureaucracies. One descriptive term for the practice is
administrative markings. An administrative marking is a sign, stamp or similar designation
that characterizes the nature of information in a document. An unpublished congressional
study from the late 1970s found more than 100 markings in use in the federal government.

Administrative markings generally become invisible in a practical sense. Documents with
markings circulate all the time. But like background music or hallway clutter, their very
ubiquity makes most people fail to take much notice of them.

The most important—and required—markings are those for national security
documents. Under Executive Order 12958 on security classification, documents classified as
being in the interest of foreign policy or national defense must be marked confidential,
secret or top secret.

But even the national security markings lose their effectiveness. Over the years, I
have heard from high-ranking officials that their secretaries make the decisions about the
classification levels for documents.

Sometimes, a document is classified at the highest level only because no one will read
it otherwise. The classification system is greatly abused.

Still, at least there are published rules about the use of security classification
markings. Most other agency markings are usually undefined and have little common meaning.
My favorite is “limited official use.” The reader who notices that marking has
no idea what can or cannot be done with the document.

I recently had a chance to review the marking policies and practices for a small
federal agency. About two dozen different markings were in use, some based on statutory
requirements, some on executive orders and some made up by agency personnel. The result
was low-level but persistent confusion about usage and meaning. Interestingly, many
officials in the agency said they would welcome a formal policy.

Here are a few thoughts about what a policy for administrative markings should try to

The release of a record will be decided on at the time of the request. A carefully
marked document may still be released and an unmarked document may still be withheld.

In the Pentagon Papers case, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “When
everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be
disregarded by the cynical or the careless.”

That is surely also true of all administrative markings.  

Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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