The good news out of Washington is that the federal government isn't keeping the public in the dark nearly as much as it used to do.

The bad news is that the 6.8 million federal documents stamped "secret" last year - down from the peak of 15 million in 1985 - still seems excessive. Until the figure can be lowered much further, there's room for suspecting that many documents are being concealed not to protect national security but to cover up bureaucratic mistakes and hide discrepancies between what Washington says publicly and what it does privately.

This suspicion is strengthened by a number of known excesses on the part of those in charge of wielding the "secret" stamp. For example:

- The Navy Department once stamped "secret" on clippings of certain news stories after they had already appeared in the newspaper.

- The Air Force once stamped "secret" on pictures of the interiors of transport planes that had been remodeled with plush lounges for the comfort of military VIPs.

- A scientific study on a modern adaptation of the bow and arrow was once classified as secret.

- The same thing was done to a report describing shark attacks on shipwrecked sailors even though the shipwrecks occurred more than 20 years before the report was issued.

Every time the federal government keeps more secrets than it really needs to, it becomes harder for the public to accurately assess how good or bad a job Washington is doing - and the more cynical the public becomes about the government.

Keep in mind, though, that the situation is improving. It is doing so not because the executive branch of government wants more light shined into its dark corners but because Congress started complaining in the mid-1980's that too many documents were kept from public view. Clearly, the lawmakers need to keep exerting pressure for less secrecy and more candor.