Back in 1999—simpler times, perhaps—there was a little-noticed brouhaha in federal court over an effort to get several secret US government documents released through official channels. The James Madison Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that champions openness and accountability in government, especially on national security and intelligence matters, was sparring with the Central Intelligence Agency. At issue were what are believed to be the six oldest classified documents held by the National Archives and Records Administration—memoranda created around 1918 describing methods for making and detecting the “secret ink” used by the German imperial government for espionage during the Great War.

The proceedings were respectful, which is typical of most litigation under the Freedom of Information Act, a law passed by Congress in 1966 to promote greater public knowledge of government decisions and actions. The plaintiffs pointed out that the details of America’s first encounter with the use of secret ink as spycraft had been revealed in a book published in 1931 by a disgruntled former State Department official who was a codebreaker during World War I. But the CIA, which did not exist at the time the memoranda were written yet came to control their distribution, was adamant: the documents could not be declassified, eight decades later, because the information would make its current covert communications systems “more vulnerable to detection…by hostile intelligence services or terrorist organizations.” In light of legal precedent requiring deference to the views of government national-security agencies in FOIA lawsuits, the judge in the case declined to order the documents declassified.

Twelve years on, the secret ink documents and others from the era stashed away in the Archives—now more than ninety years old—are still under review for declassification.

The incident comes to mind as the US government confronts the massive, and somewhat chaotic, hemorrhage of classified documents orchestrated in recent months by WikiLeaks, the new-age Internet operation with essentially the same goals as, but far more controversial methods than, the James Madison Project. News organizations around the world have published or broadcast stories based on WikiLeaks’s selections from classified documents and cables that reveal the inside and underside of current American foreign and defense policy, including some especially sensitive revelations about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems clear that most, if not all, of the information comes from an extraordinary cache of documents to which a young soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, had access and allegedly passed along to WikiLeaks.

Thus far, the government’s primary response to WikiLeaks has been to convene task forces to figure out what happened and how to tighten controls so that such an incident cannot occur again. One memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget warns of “insider threats” and urges that supervisors evaluate government employees for “trustworthiness,” perhaps with the help of psychiatrists who can measure their level of unhappiness. What lurks beyond this frenzied reaction, however, is an international investigation leading to a deadly serious criminal prosecution that the Obama administration, as of this writing, is said to be preparing against Manning and Julian Assange, the enigmatic Australian front man for WikiLeaks, under the Espionage Act (which was hastily drafted by Congress at about the same time that secret ink was seen to be such a threat). The implication is that Manning, who at press time is in solitary confinement on a Marine Corps base in Virginia, conspired with Assange, living on a vast estate in England while he fights extradition to Sweden for questioning on sex charges, to harm the national security of the United States.

Absent, at least from the government’s public statements and actions, is any consideration of an obvious underlying problem: that the obsessive over-classification of US official information has reached a point where it is impossible to know with confidence what truly deserves to be kept secret and how that can be done effectively. The government’s instinct to protect so many “secrets” also hinders democracy by keeping vital information from the public.

As it happens, the WikiLeaks drama unfolds as we approach the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and it is useful to think about secrets through that prism.

Sanford J. Ungar , author of The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers, which won a George Polk Award in 1972, is president of Goucher College in Baltimore and a member of the US Public Interest Declassification Board.