The Latest Document the Military Is Hiding Behind Handling Rules: Parental Leave

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By the end of January, the Pentagon was due to brief Congress on whether the military has been abusing a set of document rules, a categorization known as Controlled Unclassified Information, or CUI, to shield nonsensitive information from public scrutiny.

And on Tuesday, Jan. 31, the Army completed work on its new parental leave policy, marking it CUI. All the other services’ policies setting the 12 weeks of parental leave mandated by Congress published over the past month are publicly available.

It’s an example of how the CUI label is being applied inconsistently and, some critics argue, arbitrarily to keep some documents from being broadly shared.

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Another set of policy changes related to parenthood released by the Army last year is not behind a CUI stamp.

The new parental leave rules were shared with soldiers through an All Army Activities, or ALARACT, message. Those are broadly a format in which guidance is issued to the force. A review of dozens of recently released ALARACTs by Military.com showed all of them were marked CUI, including new rules allowing soldiers to wear name plates on formal uniforms.

A review of Army policy on publishing ALARACTs made no mention they are to be marked CUI by default, and there are also other methods of passing guidance down to the rank and file.

The Army did not respond to a request for comment.

A set of Defense Department talking points about COVID-19 and vaccines reviewed by Military.com was also marked CUI. Those talking points are for senior leaders and public affairs officials to reference when speaking to the media, standard practice for any topic that is likely to draw journalists’ interests.

CUI documents are technically not classified but are protected, typically accessible through internal document-sharing websites that are locked behind military identification card access. Soldiers might not have access to card readers at home, and accessing Defense Department-run sites outside of a military network can be complicated. That can prevent troops from accessing policies during off hours, when discussions about things like family planning often take place.

Adding the CUI stamp also limits access by the press or congressional staff, putting some limitation on oversight.

For years, military planners have been using different rules, or handling instructions, for documents that were designed to limit access but not cross the threshold into classification, which carries very specific legal requirements. Ten years ago, many of those documents were labeled For Official Use Only, but in the past couple of years, CUI has broadly supplanted that tag.

Earlier in January, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder laid out the circumstances under which the agency believes the CUI label should be used when asked about overuse of the label during a press conference.

“CUI information would include pre-decisional DoD policy information, meeting minutes, and communications describing pre-decisional DoD policies, future calendars of DoD executives, leaders and commanders, and current and future DoD operational information,” he said.

Referencing the congressionally mandated report on CUI, Ryder added that the Pentagon would “take this review very seriously, and we’ll take the request from Congress very seriously.”

The requirement for a briefing on the use of CUI was built into the annual spending bill passed by both houses of Congress late last year. In the bill, lawmakers noted “concern that the extensive use of CUI will result in less transparency, accountability, and congressional oversight” while the annual defense policy bill also passed late last year cited “uneven application” of the stamp.

The parental leave policy was shared by an Army source to Military.com ahead of its release, but was not officially shared through any press releases. It also isn’t publicly available on the Army’s public-facing website, which routinely posts information for soldiers and the press. The service did, however, copy and paste the policy into a Reddit post.

“Overclassification undermines critical democratic objectives such as increasing transparency to promote an informed citizenry and greater accountability,” Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said in a speech last week. “And second, overclassification undermines the basic trust that the public has in its government. And third, overclassification negatively impacts national security because it increases the challenges associated with sharing information that should not be classified or at least not classified at the level the information is classified at.”

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Pentagon Ordered to Review Its New Practice of Concealing Documents from the Public

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