The government has no tool better for keeping secrets than the invocation of “national security.”

President Trump’s decision to order a drone strike targeting and killing Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani has been no exception, with the administration working to keep the circumstances of that decision a secret. In an unusual move and without explanation, it ordered “classified” for security reasons its War Powers Act notification to Congress regarding the killing, and a congressional briefing on Wednesday is likely to be secret, as well. Similarly, last month, Vice President Pence invoked U.S. national security when he refused to release a transcript of his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, arguing that its contents were “classified.”

Yet the actual threat necessitating such secrecy is rarely spelled out, and when disputed classified documents have been released, the touted dangers often turn out to be minor matters of momentary embarrassment. Too frequently, the embarrassment the government has sought to evade is merely its own.

Journalists, activists and scholars have long critiqued the all-encompassing secrecy of the government’s national security apparatus, arguing that national security justifications for secrecy can be seriously misused. What they have neglected to notice is that much of the problem stems from the very idea of “national security” itself. Before the term was essentially invented by a now-obscure Princeton professor and burst into the national discourse in the 1940s and 1950s, American diplomacy was regarded as needing little secrecy protection. But this new, vague idea helped to perpetuate a constant state of fear at home and made it tolerable to shield our diplomacy from public interrogation. It turned “national security” into magic words, ones that resulted in virtually all information related to U.S. foreign policy automatically becoming a government secret.

For decades before World War I, the United States practiced what would now be regarded as astonishing transparency in its approach to world affairs: At the end of each year, the State Department would publish a volume of its most important diplomatic communications.

These volumes arose out of wartime needs, as the Civil-War-era State Department flaunted its vigorous efforts to deny diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. The releases continued for long thereafter as a remarkable pillar of American diplomatic practice. They became the cornerstone of an American method of diplomacy that emphasized the routine and extensive publication of important documents. Secrecy was limited only to active diplomatic negotiations and only for as long as those negotiations lasted.

People showed surprising nuance in their thinking about what kinds of secrecy were necessary. In 1911, for example, the Army and Navy departments complained to Congress that they had detected what they thought were foreign spies, but they had no legal means to arrest these people. Congress happily obliged their concerns, passing the Defense Secrets Act, which provided secrecy protections for an array of military facilities and related documents.

Yet while the military was worried about securing greater secrecy, the diplomats were not: The State Department during this period battled congressional appropriators to provide sufficient funding for the department’s annual document releases. Significant publication delays were cropping up, and the State Department wanted the money to return to an on-time annual release.

Policymakers’ attitudes toward secrecy began to evolve during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson was obsessed with maintaining the secrecy of his diplomacy. Influenced by the exigencies of war and by a secretive principal adviser, Wilson sought to impose secrecy on the State Department. A State Department that gave little thought to its codes and ciphers before 1915 was, by 1920, using much stronger codes and changing them frequently. And yet, when Congress, spurred by a significant campaign of German espionage and sabotage, passed the Espionage Act of 1917, it limited the bill’s enhanced secrecy protections to military facilities, doing almost nothing for American diplomacy.

After the war, Wilson’s secrecy had lasting consequences: This American method of routine, extensive publication ended, and an interval of more than a decade before release became the new norm. The State Department also had a new, good reason for wanting additional secrecy. It was now a key partner in the American Black Chamber, the United States’ first code-breaking agency.

But the embrace of secrecy did not come fully or easily. In 1929, the new Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the Black Chamber, arguing that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Even when its former director published a tell-all book about the agency, Congress passed a narrowly tailored law to address the disclosure, one that limited liability for leaking only to government employees and protected only decrypted communications and other certain kinds of encoded diplomatic documents. Most diplomatic documents remained without significant secrecy protections.

But the Cold War finally destroyed this careful nuance about government secrecy, thanks to the rise of the idea of national security, which encompassed new intelligence agencies, the Defense Department and diplomatic correspondence. In 1951, Harry Truman issued the first executive order to expand the authority to “classify” information beyond the Department of Defense to all government departments. It was also the first such executive order to invoke the phrase “national security.”

Ever since, national security secrecy in the United States has operated within this readily recognizable form, even as it has seen spiraling growth. Only in the 1970s did the overreach and abuses of the intelligence community under President Richard Nixon lead to significant pushback. In the aftermath of 9/11, the size of the American secret state exploded, with a special report by this newspaper in 2010 finding that the government had some 850,000 people holding top secret security clearances amid a sprawling profusion of military, intelligence and counterterrorism efforts.

We have long had “national security” deeply embedded into our way of thinking about U.S. foreign policy and government secrecy. But the term is often very vague, leading us to see threats everywhere and providing the government with a ready-made excuse for keeping vast swaths of government information hidden from public view. In a democratic society, with its need for accountability to the people, there will always be tensions between the government’s need for secrecy and citizens’ demand for transparency. Resolving those tensions requires robust debate, in which the government must justify the secrets it keeps. The executive should not be able to sidestep those debates by invoking some magic phrase.

Americans a century ago recognized that the government must keep secrets. They even accepted that sometimes secrecy protections needed to be broad. In the absence of “national security,” however, they made careful judgments about the secrecy that various government functions required. The executive branch was obliged to defend its secrets on their actual necessity and merits and could not merely wave the wand of “national security” as it so often tries to do. It could not, as Pence did in rejecting Congress’s demand for his Ukrainian phone transcript, simply pronounce the matter “classified” and insist that this ends the discussion.

There are threats to the United States in the world, and while “security” has its uses as a tool of analysis, it is far overused today. There are many other words we can use to assess and manage these threats — words that are more specific, less militarized and less secretive. When it comes to government secrecy, perhaps it is time for “national security” to be retired.