A former dictator's cocktail preferences and a facetious plot against Santa Claus were classified by the government to prevent public disclosure.

Also stamped "secret" for six years was a study concluding that 40 percent of Army chemical warfare masks leaked.

These, as well as other examples of classification were cited last week by members of Congress and witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing into the Sept. 11 commission's conclusion that secrecy is undermining efforts to thwart terrorists.

Some classifications were made in error or to save face.

The CIA deleted the amount Iraqi agents paid for aluminum tubes from Page 96 of a Senate report on prewar intelligence. The report quoted the CIA as concluding that "their willingness to pay such costs suggests the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest."

That price turned out to be not so high. On Page 105 of the same Senate report, the same security reviewers let the CIA's figure -- as much as $17.50 each -- be printed along with other estimates that the Iraqis paid as little as $10 apiece.

"There are too many secrets" and maybe too many secret-makers, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security panel.

There are 3,978 officials who can stamp a document "top secret," "secret" or "confidential" under multiple sets of complex rules.

No one knows how much is classified, he said, and the system "often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant."

The problem is growing, said J. William Leonard, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors federal practices. Officials decided to classify documents 8 percent more often in 2003 than in 2002. Total classification decisions -- including upgrading or downgrading -- reached 14 million.

"The tone is set at the top," Shays said.

"This administration believes the less known, the better," added the Connecticut Republican, noting sadly he was speaking of a GOP administration. "I believe the more known, the better."

The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, noted that former President Bill Clinton directed that in cases of doubt, the lowest or no classification be used. But in 2003, President Bush ordered officials to use the more restrictive level.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on secrecy, said some classification was designed to conceal illegality or avoid embarrassment, even though that is forbidden.

Aftergood cited the "secret" stamp on Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's report of "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" inflicted on Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Carol A. Haave, deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, said most misclassification was unintentional, resulting from misunderstanding or failure to declassify data that are no longer sensitive. She said a weakness, particularly for anti-terrorism efforts, was that those who collect intelligence determine its classification.

"Collectors of information can never know how it could best be used," Haave said. "We have to move to a user-driven environment."

Leonard, the Archives official, said another obstacle to sharing anti-terrorist data as the Sept. 11 commission envisioned was that federal law divides the authority for writing the rules that govern secrets. The CIA director has authority to protect intelligence sources and methods, the Energy Department has power to write regulations to shield nuclear secrets, the Pentagon has control over classifying NATO data and the National Security Agency can define eavesdropping communications secrets.

"All these variations have nuances that impede cooperation," Leonard said.

Aftergood, who is fighting in court to declassify the overall budget for intelligence agencies, argued that declassifying that total "could break the logjam" of overclassification. That was also recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.

Leonard said a 2000 law created a public interest declassification board to recommend release of secrets in important cases, but the president and Congress never appointed members.

For the curious: The CIA classified for 20 years longtime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's preference for pisco sours, according to subcommittee staff members citing previously classified documents published by the National Security Archive, a private anti-secrecy institute at George Washington University.

And a CIA employee made up a story of a terrorist plot to hijack Santa Claus and inserted it into classified traffic. "So, apparently, the fact that CIA had a sense of humor was classified," said subcommittee counsel Lawrence J. Halloran.