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Usage example with a context:

Putin has made his and his family's private life little less than a state secret, keeping his rarely-photographed daughters Yekaterina, 28, and Maria, 29, out of sight and managing his divorce with the minimum fuss.

If we are to understand this literally, then what we'd have is something like this: if it's little less than a state secret, then it means that it's not a state secret but it's almost one. But I suppose this phrase has more of an idiomatic use. So, how do you understand that expression: as an idiom or just literally?

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I would say the phrase is not being used idiomatically in this instance - your literal interpretation is absolutely correct in my view. It could be replaced with 'virtually' or 'as good as' to achieve the same meaning. I think this phrase could be used non-literally in a hyperbolic sense, but I don't think that would quite class it as an idiom though, eg:

On seeing the delight that Keith took in swatting flies, Marcia considered him as little less than a serial killer.

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It's basically literal. It is not a state secret. It doesn't quite reach the level of being a state secret. But it almost does. It is just a little less than a state secret.

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