There are secrets the government doesn't want you to know: things like nuclear codes or where the keys to all the stealth bombers are kept.
Then there's information labeled "secret" that may not be all that sensitive, such as routine government memos.
Every year the government adds millions of papers and photos to tens of billions of classified documents, all at a huge cost. Some 3 million federal workers or contractors can stamp "classified" or "secret" across the top of nearly any document.
Even ex-classifiers think the system's too complicated. And now, with the cold war over and budgeteers looking everywhere for cuts, a blue-ribbon panel is pushing the most serious effort yet to overhaul the government's secrecy system.
"It's the bureaucratization of secrecy," says panel member Martin Faga, former National Reconnaissance Office director. Classification policies "are broad and were established for a lofty purpose. But in the end, in order to practice the policy, you have to break it down into bureaucratic rules, and in doing that you can just get lost in the rules."
Some classification guidelines have been on the books as long as 70 years. So much is classified that no one knows exactly how much secret data exist.
"It's a question I am asked constantly," says Steve Garfinkel of the Information Security Oversight Office. "The only problem is, I don't know."
Mr. Garfinkel estimates roughly tens of billions of pages of classified documents exist. More than half of all classified information is generated by the Department of Defense. The Central Intelligence Agency piles up the next largest amount, roughly 30 percent.
"Secrecy is a mode of regulation," says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, who chairs the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. "It is the ultimate mode [of regulation], for the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated."
Senator Moynihan's dozen-member panel has spent two years studying the way the government catalogs information. It released a report in March, which recommended, among other things: classify information only if a demonstrable need to protect national security interests are at stake; pare down to the minimum those things that would be considered confidential; limit to 10 years the time anything can be classified, absent recertification; and establish a National Declassification Center.
Bills that would write these changes into law will be introduced in both the House and Senate. But will anything really happen?
Since the mid-1950s, there have been at least six major investigations of the way government information is classified. None led to sweeping change.
Supporters of the current secrecy commission believe the new effort is under way at an opportune time. Already, the Clinton administration has declassified dark secrets about nuclear-era experiments by American scientists on US citizens.
Also, in an executive order two years ago, President Clinton signaled his willingness to tackle the issue. The order limited the scope of what can be classified and called for an agencywide declassification review of data 25 years or older.
Mr. Clinton recently supported the thrust of the commission's report, saying, "I think you will see some significant progress coming out of this."
Even former cold war warriors recognize the need for change. Bryan Siebert, director of the Office of Declassification at the Department of Energy, describes himself as being "worse than Darth Vader on classification" issues back when he worked in a weapons program during the Reagan administration.
"That paradigm is no longer valid for that kind of information. Classification is still necessary, but the overwhelming fear of a superpower confrontation has gone," he says.
But others are sounding a warning note. "I think it would be a mistake to open the floodgates just because the cold war is over," says retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who served as the head of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988. "There will always remain a very strong case for certain kinds of secrecy," he says.