WASHINGTON - So many government documents are being stamped "Top Secret," "Secret" or "Confidential" these days that even lawmakers with access to classified materials complain the process has gotten out of hand.
Overclassification does more than deprive the public of information, critics say; it costs taxpayers billions of dollars while preventing law enforcement officials from getting details about terrorist threats.
The congressional investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks found that some material was so highly classified that the CIA and National Security Agency couldn't provide it to the FBI. Inadequate information sharing has been blamed for the breakdowns that failed to detect the attacks.
"We have a need for less classification," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I read report after report after report all day and they've got some type of classification cover on it. I'll say, 'What's classified about that?' It's 90 percent of what I read."
Goss, an influential ally of CIA Director George J. Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney, is so frustrated by overclassification that he is developing legislation that would set forth more carefully defined standards for what should be classified.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said he shares Goss' concerns. "We need to work together on it," Roberts said. "It's been a problem down through the years."
In fiscal 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the federal government was responsible for more than 33 million "classification actions" - a 44 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to the National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office. Secrecy experts said it was likely the annual total has risen since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The report also says the government spent $4.7 billion to classify documents in fiscal 2001 - $2 billion more than it did six years earlier. Those costs include hiring employees as well as paying for facilities and security.
Some experts attribute the increases to a system they describe as inherently cautious.
"This is an area where there's absolutely no penalty for overclassifying and considerable risk for underclassifying," said Gregory Treverton, an analyst for the RAND Corp., a national security think tank.
Federal agencies classify material based on whether it contains information about intelligence and military sources and methods or has been provided by foreign governments.
The majority of classified materials are "Secret" or "Top Secret." Those levels are assigned to data that would result in either serious or exceptionally grave damage to national security if made public.
But some lawmakers say classification often has a political purpose.
"A lot of documents are classified for the wrong reason - because they're embarrassing, or perhaps because of a cover-up," said Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and former Senate Intelligence chairman.
Goss and other members of the intelligence committees have been battling the CIA for months over the declassification of their investigation last year into the Sept. 11 attacks. Lawmakers and spy agency officials are confident that the issue can be resolved by the end of the month.
Goss compared the flow of incoming classified information to a bathtub filling rapidly with water.
"There are a lot of people who say, 'The problem here is that the drain isn't big enough,'" he said. "The drain is fine - the problem is that somebody left the water on and let it run too hard. Turn the water off."
In response, CIA and Pentagon officials say their agencies have tried hard to strike a balance between making information public and protecting details that could be of use to terrorists or hostile foreign governments.
"We do pay a lot of attention" to classification, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said. "Certainly, once material is released, you can't pull it back."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Kenneth McClellan said officials have to envision a range of possibilities when reviewing material for classification.
"Quite often, a commander with an operation or a new system will think about the problems that would be created if the enemy knew what route his troops are going to take, or if a terrorist knew the exact capability of which system - and will publish a classification guideline," he said.
In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to prevent overclassification through improved standards for government classifiers.
Two years later, however, a presidential commission on government secrecy chaired by former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, found that some agencies continued to disregard instructions to mark documents indicating which portions should be secret and which should be made public. Instead, the commission said in a report, materials often were marked "Entire Text Classified."
Former Army Col. Bill Taylor learned firsthand about excessive classification two decades ago after he wrote a textbook on national security while serving as an instructor at West Point.
When he sent the manuscript to Army reviewers, it was returned "with about 120 Post-It notes saying 'Classified,'" mostly over examples of decisions made by the Pentagon on weapons systems, he said.
When he found unclassified sources to back up everything he had written, Taylor resubmitted his manuscript - only to get it back with 20 new Post-It warnings.
"I went to see the superintendent and said, 'This is an academic institution; I don't need this,'" recalled Taylor, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And I retired."
President Bush issued an order in March making modest revisions to the Clinton policy. But the order "did not fundamentally change classification procedures," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington group that monitors government secrecy.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, however, some lawmakers remain reluctant to revisit an issue they regard as fraught with dire consequences.
"With the troubling world we're all involved in today, [tight classification] is absolutely necessary," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It's a challenging problem, but not an extraordinary one," he said. "It requires congressional leadership to insist that the abuses be corrected."