In 2010, after WikiLeaks released the largest unauthorized cache of classified information in history, my colleague Massimo Calabresi reported in a TIME cover story on the problem of over-classification:
But not all the secrets now laid bare are as consequential. It is interesting — amusing, even — to know that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi keeps a cadre of four blond Ukrainian nurses, that a U.S. diplomat considers Kim Jong Il “flabby” and that junior members of the British royal family have maintained their unerring ability to stick a foot in their mouth. But none of this can seriously be considered a threat to national security. As it turns out, spuriously classified items like those are part of what has made WikiLeaks possible. Treat them the way they deserve to be treated, and it might be easier to keep the real stuff under wraps.
Now, at last, there is some evidence that the federal government has finally begun to ease off on its most recent spate of over-classification. From 2011 to 2012, the number of new government decisions to classify information decreased by 42% to 73,477, according to the latest annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). It is the lowest reported level of original classification activity since at least 1989.
“A large part of this decrease can be attributed to…the appropriate recording of classification decisions in security classification guides,” reports ISOO. Or in other words, the long-promised effort to limit the number of secrets the government creates is finally getting traction.
On first glance, the strangest strain from the new data is that the State Department decided nearly 40,000 times—39,770 to be exact—to classify information, compared to the Central Intelligence Agency’s four. “Agencies have different styles of classification practice,” Steven Aftergood tells TIME, the director of the Federation of American Scientists project on Government Secrecy. “At CIA almost everything they do is governed by a classification guide. They do very little new classification of things that haven’t been classified before. For example, the name of a station chief in an African country—that will be covered by an existing guide, and it will not be considered new classification,” adds Aftergood. Meanwhile there are nearly 300 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world which consider much of their correspondence “new” and worthy of classification.
So is the 42% dip that impressive if the bulk of CIA classification is “derivative,” not “original?” ISOO notes that executive branch agencies reported over 95 million derivative classification decisions, an uptick of 3% over the prior year.
Following the money, the fall in original classification activity, from need-to-classify to classify-to-need, has made a significant difference. ISOO reports that the government spent $9.77 billion in 2012 in classification costs, a decrease of $1.59 billion, or 14 percent from 2011. “The three percent [derivative classification activity increase] is…close to constant,” says Aftergood. “The original is a sharper drop, which is clearly a departure from where they had been.”