A Washington riddle: What's "top secret"?

“The reality is that much is classified just to take the issue off the public agenda,” said Steve Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “That’s not what classification is for, but it often serves that purpose.”

So how might the government deal with its classification problem? Herb Lin, a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences, believes that budgets must be used to change behavior.

“The incentives to classify information are many, and the incentives to refrain from classifying it are few,” he noted recently, adding that he was speaking just for himself. “Classifying information doesn’t incur any monetary cost for the classifier, and any economist will tell you that a free good will be overused.”

So he proposes that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies should be given a budget, and every time a “top secret” stamp is used, it should be charged against that budget.