The Department of Defense says that a forthcoming book about the war in Afghanistan contains classified information, and that it should not be put on the market in its current form. Instead, the Pentagon is considering whether to purchase and destroy the entire first printing of the book, “Operation Dark Heart” by Anthony A. Shaffer, while a revised edition is prepared. The controversy was first reported by the New York Times in “Pentagon Plan: Buying Books to Keep Secrets” by Scott Shane, September 10.
Shaffer, the book's author, is a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer and Army lieutenant colonel. He submitted the manuscript to the Army for prepublication review and received permission to proceed earlier this year. The book was printed and prepared for release at the end of August by the publisher, St. Martin's Press.
But prior to the publication date, a copy of the manuscript was obtained by DIA and other intelligence agencies, all of whom raised new objections to its publication.
“DIA's preliminary classification review of this manuscript has identified significant classified information, the release of which I have determined could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to national security,” wrote DIA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. in an August 6 memo.
“I have also been informed that United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have determined that the manuscript contains classified information concerning their activities. In the case of NSA, this includes information classified at the TOP SECRET level,” Gen. Burgess wrote. He directed that Lt. Col. Shaffer be “ordered to take all necessary action to direct his publisher to withhold publication of the book” pending a new security review.
But the Pentagon now faces a policy conundrum due to the fact that numerous review copies of the book are already circulating in the public domain. (We picked up a couple of them last week.) What this means is that any effort to selectively censor the manuscript at this late date would actually tend to highlight and validate those portions of the text that agencies believe are sensitive, not to conceal them.
Therefore, as a practical security policy matter, it seems that the Pentagon's best move would be to do nothing and to allow the book to be published without further interference.
“Operation Dark Heart” is a memoir, not a work of scholarship, policy analysis or journalism. It describes the author's personal experiences and perspectives in sometimes clunky, occasionally gripping prose. It often seems formulaic or cliched, though it is quite readable and sometimes moving. Overall, it seems unlikely to alter the prevailing understanding of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
It is hard to know what to make of the author. As a clandestine operator he claims to have run one operation “deep into North Korea,” and another that penetrated the Iranian intelligence service. He also says he once recruited a high ranking Soviet military officer while posing as a freelance journalist. Maybe so. His most frequent cultural points of reference are Star Wars and the action movies of Steven Seagal.
Within those parameters, he tells some pretty good stories about intelligence gathering, impromptu clandestine operations and bureaucratic wrangling with stuffy superiors. Operation Dark Heart was the name of a plan to target and destroy several Taliban operational centers, in what the author believed might have been a decisive blow to the brewing insurgency in 2003. But because the proposed targets lay across the border in Pakistan, the operation was scuttled, to Shaffer's dismay and disgust. He believes his intelligence career was then derailed as the result of his decision to brief the 9/11 Commission about the Able Danger data mining program, which he says had succeeded in identifying some of the 9/11 hijackers in advance.
Even in the present version of the book that is now in the public domain, the author seems alert to security issues. He says that several names have been changed or concealed. At several points in the narrative, he stops short of full disclosure, citing classification restrictions on what he can discuss (p. 147, 165, 180).
But at other points, he is quite chatty, in ways that might have alarmed some officials. He describes the location of the CIA station in Kabul, along with the name and appearance of the CIA station chief (“he reminded me of Peter Cushing, the actor who played Governor Tarkin, commander of the Death Star in Star Wars”). He briefly discusses the COPPER GREEN “enhanced interrogation” program (that was first reported by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker). And he names quite a few unfamiliar names, not all of which have been changed.
At the rare intervals where his assertions can be independently confirmed, they check out. At one point he introduces a certain person as “chief of NSA here in country” (page 150). A search of that person's name online turns up his resume that does indeed describe the individual as “Officer in Charge, Cryptologic Services Group (CSG), OEF, Bagram, Afghanistan” and “Senior SIGINT advisor to Commander, JTF-180.”
Last June St. Martin's Press, the book's publisher, distributed promotional material (pdf) to reviewers, including a list of “Key Background Points and New Revelations in Operation Dark Heart.”
While national security classification arguments naturally warrant serious consideration, the mere fact that a government official says certain information could damage national security if it were disclosed doesn't necessarily make it so. Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, the DIA director who is Mr. Shaffer's current antagonist, has previously been known to make dubious claims about classification and about the secrecy needed to protect national security.
Last year, Gen. Burgess formally expressed the view that the size of the National Intelligence Program budget for 2006 was properly classified, even though the DNI had already declassified the intelligence budget figures for 2007 and 2008 and published them openly. Yet in Burgess' opinion, as he wrote in a January 14, 2009 letter (pdf), “the release of this [2006 budget] information would reveal sensitive intelligence sources and methods.”
General Burgess was wrong then. Given the present circumstances, where all of the information in the Shaffer book is effectively in the public domain, it would seem reasonable for him to reconsider his position now.
Phi Beta Iota: We are taking lessons from Secrecy News and Stephen Aftergood. His measured tone is one to be emulated. Here we strongly endorse his view that General Ron Burgess is wrong. Our invited testimony to the Moynihan Commission, and that Commission's report, make it clear that in cases like this, too much secrecy is harmful to the public interest.