Pentagon Relaxes Censorship of Afghan War Memoir

01.24.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

When U.S. Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer wrote a memoir of his service as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan called “Operation Dark Heart” in 2010, the Department of Defense intervened to block publication, asserting that the manuscript contained classified information.  An initial print run of the book was destroyed, and the work was republished with hundreds of passages redacted.  However, a limited number of uncensored review copies and early sales editions have remained in circulation.

Now the Pentagon has decided that many of the claimed redactions are no longer necessary, and may be disclosed in future editions of the book.

“The U.S. Government has completed its security review of the manuscript, including the 433 passages that were redacted from the Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press edition of September 2010,” wrote Mark M. Langerman, Chief of the DoD Office of Security Review, in a January 18, 2013 letter.  “The Government determined that information contained in 198 of the redacted passages has been properly declassified in accordance with Executive Order 13526. The other redacted passages, however, were found to contain classified information” and may not be disclosed.

The current status of each of the original redactions was presented in a chart accompanying Mr. Langerman’s letter.  Those who purchased the censored book can now find out what is behind at least some of the blacked-out sections.

Thus, a formerly classified reference on page 2 to “[deleted], the hub for U.S. operations in country” is now acknowledged to refer to “Bagram Air Base.”

Interestingly, the government does not admit that it overclassified any of this information, or classified it unnecessarily. On the contrary, officials filed sworn declarations in May 2011 indicating that the information was properly classified.  But that was 20 months ago, and times change.

“It is not at all unusual that, as circumstances change, the classification status of information changes,” government attorneys wrote yesterday in a pending lawsuit brought by author Shaffer.  They insisted that the information had now been declassified, not that it was originally misclassified, and they denied any implication of bad faith.

Of equal or greater interest is what remains classified, even today.  The use of the word “Fort” to refer to “NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md” on page xvi and elsewhere in the book is still classified, perhaps because the role of signals intelligence in Mr. Shaffer’s account is suppressed.  So is the author’s adopted cover name, “Christopher Stryker.”  A side-by-side comparison of several pages from the book in censored and uncensored form is posted here.

The author, or readers of the book, may agree with the redactions or disagree with them, the government says, but that doesn’t matter! Their perspectives are simply irrelevant to the classification process.

“There is no need to establish procedures by which the plaintiff or his ‘experts’ may submit their opinions regarding the classified information because any declaration or submission disputing the substance of the Government’s classification experts’ proper determinations is due no weight,” the government attorneys wrote in yesterday’s filing.

“Courts have repeatedly, and necessarily, rejected the views of plaintiffs on the question of whether a particular disclosure may harm national security.”

“Instead, the only relevant information that the plaintiff can provide is citations to specific instances in which the Government has officially released the information at issue.” The views of outside experts (or “experts”) don’t count.

In other words, the classification process is a pure expression of executive branch authority. It is not an empirical process or a substantive matter that outsiders can meaningfully participate in or try to rebut.

But to the extent that it is beyond debate or challenge, one may say that the classification process has no intrinsic claim to respect from anyone who has not already signed a non-disclosure agreement.