WikiLeaks' trove is a mere drop in ocean of US classified documents

How many documents are classified exactly? That's a secret. But here's an educated guess (in case WikiLeaks is interested).

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    A copy of the New York Times on sale on a news stand in New York City, Nov. 29. The more than 250,000 documents, given to five media groups by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, provide candid and at times critical views of foreign leaders as well as sensitive information on terrorism and nuclear proliferation filed by US diplomats.
    Mike Segar/Reuters
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Those folks at Wikileaks got their hands on a pile of US secrets, didn’t they?

The government itself figures that the group published about 600,000 classified records in its latest document drop. That’s a lot of embarrassing revelations about such things as Hillary Clinton’s private thoughts on the personalities of foreign leaders.

But let’s put WikiLeaks in context. They’ve got only a couple of snowballs’ worth of official cables scraped off the top of the mammoth, glistening iceberg that is all US classified information.

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How big is the trove of US data that we’re not supposed to see? Sorry, that’s classified. But we can produce an educated guess using numbers from the US Information Security Oversight Office.

Last year, the US government made 183,244 original classification decisions, according to the ISOO annual report. That doesn’t sound like a lot, considering what WikiLeaks has. But here’s the kicker – the government also classifies stuff that refers to or discusses or uses parts of original classified information. They call this “derivative classification.” How many derivative classification actions did the United States take in 2009? Oh, only about 55 million.

Plus, each classification action or decision typically involves about 10 pages of stuff, according to experts. Do the math – the US is producing some 560 million pages of classified information a year.

By way of comparison, the Library of Congress and other big document depositories such as Harvard’s library system each add about 60 million pages a year to their holdings.

And those 560 million pages of new secrets represent the work of only 12 months. Peter Galison, a Harvard professor of the history of science and physics, has calculated that since the late 1970s the US may have produced a trillion pages of classified info. That’s an amount of paper equal to the entire holdings of the Library of Congress, times 220.

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