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How Not to Censor a Book: Pentagon Makes a Best Seller

5 minute read
Claire Suddath

On Sept. 20, the U.S. Department of Defense oversaw the systematic destruction of 9,500 copies of Lieut. Colonel Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan — and the Path to Victory, his account of a six-month stint as a “black ops” officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said it was the first time it has ever destroyed a printed book because it contained classified information — but it may not have been in time to keep the secrets from circulating.

The U.S. government purchased the entire print run of the book from St. Martin’s Press for $47,000 a few weeks before its scheduled release. It did not suppress the book entirely: Operation Dark Heart has since been reissued after an estimated 250 sections were blacked out and deleted. However, before the buy-back and vetting occurred, nearly 200 uncensored review copies were sent to critics and media outlets. Some of those editions have sold for more than $2,000 on websites like eBay. How did the Pentagon overlook Operation Dark Heart until it was too late?

(See the top 10 banned books.)

Neither Shaffer’s attorney nor the Pentagon seem to know why the book wasn’t properly vetted. The author’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, contends that the Pentagon never asked for it, while the Pentagon says it wasn’t made aware of the project in a timely fashion.

(See NewsFeed’s take on Banned Books Week.)

But Shaffer should have been on the Pentagon’s radar. In 2005, he publicly claimed that the Defense Department had identified Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, two years before the attacks but failed to release the information to the FBI. The 9/11 commission investigated the claim but found no evidence that the Pentagon knew of Atta before September 2001. In the fallout from the controversy, Shaffer’s security clearance was revoked. No longer a member of the DIA, he became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

(See “Texas: If You Can’t Ban Books, Ban Authors.”)

Last year, Shaffer sent a copy of his book to his commanders in the Army Reserve, which cleared it for publication back in January. “He submitted the manuscript up his chain of command,” says Zaid. “As a general rule, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” That’s true, except that the book deals with information Shaffer encountered while under the jurisdiction of the DIA — which makes the subject matter of interest to the Pentagon.

Defense Department officials are investigating why the Army Reserve never bothered to contact them. “Part of the problem was brought on by ourselves,” admits Defense Department spokesperson Rene White. “But we also believe [Shaffer and the Army Reserve] knew how to publish information. All of the proper regulations are available online.”

How much damage has been done by the circulation of classified information? According to the New York Times, which obtained a copy of the original edition, many of the redacted sections contain facts easily found on Wikipedia. “They wanted Shaffer’s code name, Chris Stryker, taken out of the book,” says Zaid, “even though that same name had been approved for use in public testimony back in 2006.” (That name, by the way, is derived from the John Wayne character in the 1949 movie Sands of Iwo Jima.)

“I think the Pentagon made a mistake in judgment,” says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists. He says he finds the government redactions “appalling.” The Stryker code name is the most commonly censored information, after which come references to the National Security Agency and SIGINT — a term for “signals intelligence.”

“What we have here is a snapshot of classification as it is practiced in 2010,” says Aftergood. The censorship of Operation Dark Heart provides a rare glimpse into what the Pentagon deems classified — and the lengths it will go to keep it that way. And while Shaffer’s physical description of the CIA’s station in Kabul may need to be removed, an easily searchable acronym does not need to be.

Zaid hints that the Defense Department may have picked on his client for personal reasons. “The DIA and Tony Shaffer did not get along, and we do not trust them,” he says. Ever since the controversy over Atta, “it was and is at all times a very personal battle between them.”

If so, the Pentagon may have inadvertently made a success story out of a man it wished to silence. Since its Sept. 24 republication date, Operation Dark Heart has jumped to the top of Amazon’s biography list and is No. 2 on Barnes & Noble’s political list. St. Martin’s Press has printed 50,000 copies of the redacted version — more than five times the size of the original run — and expects to order more in the coming weeks. “This is a book that hardly anybody would have read, and now it’s poised to become a best seller,” says Aftergood. “The smart move would have been to do nothing.”

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