Secrecy News

Behind the Censorship of Operation Dark Heart

By censoring Anthony Shaffer’s new book “Operation Dark Heart” even though uncensored review copies are already available in the public domain, the Department of Defense has produced a genuinely unique product:  a revealing snapshot of the way that the Obama Administration classifies national security information in 2010.

With both versions before them (excerpts), readers can see for themselves exactly what the Pentagon classifiers wanted to withhold, and can judge for themselves whether the secrecy they tried to impose can be justified on valid national security grounds.  In the majority of instances, the results of such an inspection seem disappointing, if not very surprising, and they tend to confirm the most skeptical view of the operation of the classification system.

The most commonly repeated “redaction” in Operation Dark Heart is the author’s cover name, “Christopher Stryker,” that he used while serving in Afghanistan.  Probably the second most common redactions are references to the National Security Agency, its heaquarters location at Fort Meade, Maryland, the familiar abbreviation SIGINT (referring to “signals intelligence”), and offhand remarks like “Guys on phones were always great sources of intel,” which is blacked out on the bottom of page 56.

Also frequently redacted are mentions of the term TAREX or “Target Exploitation,” referring to intelligence collection gathered at a sensitive site, and all references to low-profile organizations such as the Air Force Special Activities Center and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as to foreign intelligence partners such as New Zealand.  Task Force 121 gets renamed Task Force 1099.  The code name Copper Green, referring to an “enhanced” interrogation program, is deleted.

Perhaps 10% of the redacted passages do have some conceivable security sensitivity, including the identity of the CIA chief of station in Kabul, who has been renamed “Jacob Walker” in the new version, and a physical description of the location and appearance of the CIA station itself, which has been censored.

Many other redactions are extremely tenuous.  The name of character actor Ned Beatty is not properly classified in any known universe, yet it has been blacked out on page 15 of the book.  (It still appears intact in the Index.)

In short, the book embodies the practice of national security classification as it exists in the United States today.  It does not exactly command respect.

A few selected pages from the original and the censored versions of Operation Dark Heart have been posted side-by-side for easy comparison here (pdf).

The New York Times reported on the Pentagon’s dubious handling of the book in “Secrets in Plain Sight in Censored Book’s Reprint” by Scott Shane, September 18.