About a year ago, I came across an article in the United States Naval Institute ''Proceedings'' that related to a project underway in a US Army research institute. The employee to whom I loaned the article returned it with the comment, ''Why, they're publishing things in that magazine that we consider classified!''
He was absolutely right. There were (and probably still are) at least 20 expensive safes in that institute ''securing'' information that had long since become the substance of international public discussion.
Those safes and the elaborate security procedures that go with them cost the taxpayer many thousands of dollars. Multiplied by all the other essentially useless safes throughout the government, the cost of ''securing'' what amounts to yesterday's newspaper is a big part of the governmental waste President Reagan has sworn to eliminate.
Why then should there be, as there reportedly is, a draft proposal circulating in the government that would give bureaucrats much greater latitude in ''classifying'' documents as ''secret'' or ''confidential''?
My first acquaintance with the attitudes that proliferate and perpetuate ''security'' waste came during the first mass flight of jet bombers from the US to England, in the spring of 1953. As public affairs officer of the staging base from which the bombers were to make the transatlantic hop, I was directed by the Air Force chief of information, Maj. Gen. Sory Smith, to call the Associated Press to let them know as soon as the first of the bombers was ''wheelsup.''
As I did so, the airdrome officer, standing nearby, exclaimed, ''Everything I've had on this has been stamped, 'Secret!' '' Although grudgingly acknowledging General Smith's authority to release the information to the public , he was plainly indignant: He had had a secret, and his secret had been taken away from him.
There are droves of people like that all through the US government. They have been stamping and locking up things like mad for decades, driving the cost of these useless ''security'' measures to what any reasonable accounting would adjudge intolerable levels.
Many career military and civilian employees become conditioned to distrust anything that does not have a ''secret'' stamp on it. The obverse of that attitude is that they want to classify anything that appears in the public prints that is obviously better information than what they have obtained through classified channels.
The effect of these mutually reinforcing attitudes is to remove the governmental decisionmaking process further and further from the world as it is, and more and more into self-induced fantasy built on out-of-date and often sophomoric classified documents.
''The trouble with you,'' a seninr Pentagon officer told a military associate of mine, ''is that you think in terms of the real world and not the planner's world.''
I suspect that the steady growth of that unreal ''planner's world'' has a lot to do with the almost unbroken succession of military disasters the US has sustained since the December 1951 Chinese counteroffensive in Korea.
We have avoided a direct military clash with the Soviet Union so far, not because of what we have managed to keep secret but because of what the Soviets know about our strength - military, economic, political, and ideological.
One of the principal deficiencies of our classification system is that it does not prescribe specific categories of information to be protected. Another is that there is no penalty imposed for overclassification. The result of the latter deficiency, in my experience, is that every bureaucrat faced with exposure for waste or criminal conduct will use the security system to cover up, and lften get away with it.
It is time for Congress to step into this matter and to identify those few specific categories of information that rightfully require protection: contingency plans; specific performance data of weapons before they are deployed (and thereby can be analyzed by foreign intelligence); information that would compromise a technical or human intelligence source. All the rest of the intelligence available to the US government should be released to the public as soon as it can be verified, for in a free society the proper place to work out national strategy and major policy is in the . Vietnam, hopefully, is the last, sad monument do what happens when government att those functions to itself.
Protection of even these minuscule quantities of classified items can rarely be justified beyond five years. A special court should be established to review and rule upon any application to retain a document in classified status beyond the five-year limit, with burden of proof on the applicant.
All in all, we would be well advised to follow the dictum stated by Gen. William E. DePuy in a speech to the US Army Armor Assn. at Fort Knox, Ky.: ''There are no more secrets.''