WASHINGTON — IN its long public airing, the Iran-contra affair has made it seem as if the United States government is brimming with secrets. From careful references to ``Country X'' before Congress to summaries of secret eavesdropping given to the Oliver North trial jury, classified information has been central at every turn in the case. Have US officials become classification machines, happily stamping ``secret'' on every paper that crosses their desks?
The flow of perhaps the most important type of classified material did increase markedly in fiscal 1988, according to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), an arm of the government that watches over secrets.
Original classification - decisions made by top officials about newly gathered information - was up 24 percent last year to 2.5 million actions, according to a just-released ISOO annual report. In 1985 government officials made fewer than 1.2 million original classification actions.
Experts point out that world events can cause a jump in classification, and that may be a partial explanation for this rise. Figures reported by the US Navy, which has been active around the world in such trouble spots as the Gulf, account for a large portion of the recent increase in original secrets.
Typically, those with authority to make original classification decisions are admirals or generals, or perhaps important colonels, or civilians around the level of assistant secretary. ``In the State Department all ambassadors are original classifiers,'' says Steven Garfinkel, the ISOO's director.
Classification guides, documents that outline what needs to be kept secret about the F-16 fighter, for example, or the Gulf, are prepared based on what original classifiers decide. Officials further down the chain of command then theoretically use the 2,000 or so guides to decide whether the memos, cables, or reports they are preparing are using sensitive material and should in turn be secret.
Ironically, this sort of ``derivative classification'' nose-dived 19 percent last year, to 7.9 million decisions. There were 14 million such decisions in 1985.
That means total classification actions - original, plus derivative - were down considerably last year, to the lowest annual figure ever reported by ISOO.
Why the mixed signals? Is the government getting more, or less, secret?
For one thing, measurements may not be accurate. The ISOO was formed under President Carter and, with a handful of staff to follow the Niagara Falls of government paper flow, it may not yet have developed adequate measurement methods, as even ISOO officials concede.
``Another explanation is that the material just isn't circulating,'' says Frederick Kaiser, a government operations expert at the Congressional Research Service. In other words, secrets may now be more tightly controlled at the government's top levels.
Should many of these documents be secret in the first place? The conflict between the need to protect national security and the openness crucial in a democracy has long produced tension in the US.
A special analysis conducted last year by the ISOO found that 1.3 percent of documents examined were clearly overclassified, and a further 1.8 percent were of questionable classification.
These findings understate the problem, assert some experts outside government. They say the ISOO merely studied whether classification decisions match set government standards for what should be secret - not whether those standards themselves are too strict.
``Too much information qualifies to be classified. They've classified newspaper clippings,'' says a congressional staff member who follows the issue closely.
A review by the Congressional General Accounting Office in 1981 said that more than 50 percent of documents examined were overclassified.
The Department of Defense is far and away the largest classifier of government material, accounting for two-thirds of classification actions. The Central Intelligence Agency accounts for about one-quarter.
But secret information is handled in unlikely places. The Department of the Interior classified a handful of items last year, many dealing with foreign water projects aided by the US government.