It is widely agreed, including by the officials who are in charge of the process, that the U.S. government classifies way too much information. Give bureaucrats a "top secret" stamp and they will use it freely. No one ever gets called on the carpet for a document that doesn't get out.
As the Associated Press found in reviewing the classified documents posted by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats classified as secret or confidential information that was in the public domain ― public speeches, summaries of what the local newspapers were saying, accounts of widely reported political feuds and stuff of only passing historical interest like how deceased dictator Josef Stalin was being taught in schools.
One classified cable from our embassy in Ottawa to new President Barack Obama contained this startling revelation:
"No matter which political party forms the Canadian government during your administration, Canada will remain one of our staunchest and most like-minded of allies, our largest trading and energy partner, and our most reliable neighbor and friend."
Despite periodic stabs at transparency, like Obama telling bureaucrats to err on the side of openness, the natural tendency of governments is to err on the side of secrecy. President George W. Bush, who tried to reclassify information that was already public, and his vice president, Dick Cheney, who gave us the phrase "undisclosed secret location," are probably closer to the norm.
Keeping secrets like this is a democratic problem because it reduces the chance that voters have sufficient information about what to vote for. The more trivial confidential information, however, may not have any implication whatsoever of what people would vote. This does not mean that it doesn't have consequences, however:
The refusal of government agencies to share classified information with each other was fingered as a critical U.S. weakness in the war on terror. And, as the AP points out, these things have costs: "The government spent at least $9 billion keeping classified information under wraps last year, and that doesn't include the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others that keep their spending on classified information classified."
Classifying innocuous or pointless information also devalues the job of protecting it. How seriously can someone be expected to take the job of keeping secret the insight that Canada is our friendly neighbor to the north? Getting rid of that kind of material would make it that much easier to safeguard what's left.