Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sensitive But Unclassified--Bureaucratic Boundary Setting

Elizabeth Williamson in the Post had an article on Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) markings (things like "For Official Use Only", etc.). These are stamps that government agencies use when they can't justify a "Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret" classification. It seems that they pose a big threat to the information sharing deemed essential to combat terrorism, because each different marking carries its own rules for dissemination and there are 108 different ones. So if the FBI sends info to the state police who relay it down to county sheriffs things can get confused. There's a committee working on simplifying this (to improve the "information-sharing environment").

Why so many SBU's? It's a combination of reasons.
  • The official classification system is limited and rigid--only three markings so they have been amplified by modifications.
  • Bureaucrats are scared--suppose this paper leaks to the Post, that would be embarassing. Or even if it reaches the local gossip. (The Plame affair revealed that even deputy Secretaries of State can love their gossip.)
  • There's the high school clique reaction: we know something you don't, ha ha ha.
  • Most of all, bureaucrats love to set boundaries and SBU's are a way of marking them.
Is it all bad? No. I'm reading William Easterly's "The White Man's Burden". He makes the point that a bureaucracy (foreign aid/foreign development type agency) that tries to do everything (and that has multiple "principals" to report to) is prone to failure. So a bureaucracy that is focused on doing one thing is more apt to be successful.

The problem we have in homeland security is that our bureaucracies have each had their own objective(s). When the global war on terrorism came along, we superimposed new objectives on the old and we still haven't straightened things out yet.

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