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Stupid Secrecy?


So I picked up my redacted copy of Operation Dark Heart on the way to catch a flight to DC this week. It’s a real page-turner, all-right, once you get past the author’s navel-gazing descriptions of his youth.

There’s been a fair amount of hoopla about the USG’s “censorship” of the contents. I’m not certain that vetting memoirs written by an individual who once held a security clearance (or rather, back-pedaling after failing to adequately vet in the first place) is really analogous to burning books as a political statement, as some would argue.

But I do agree with Hudson Institute’s Gabriel Shoenfield, quoted in the Times, that on the face of it this is just plain stupid. Assuming the redacted portions actually contain sensitive information, and given that a few original copies do remain in existence (parts of one were published by the NYTimes), the redacted version essentially demonstrates precisely where in the text those nuggets are buried and what the government is presumably concerned about. Moreover, in timing these acts of censorship to coincide with Banned Book Week and carrying out the destruction of the first print run in the most media-circus-friendly way possible, the Pentagon has basically ensured that Operation Dark Heart will sell like hotcakes.

On the other hand, since I respect as well as fear my government, I can’t help but wonder whether we should be taking these acts of seeming stupidity at face value. Could this conceivably have been done strategically to mislead interested parties into thinking that the US actually cares about the redacted portions, and draw attention away from other parts of the text? Or to draw attention to this particular text, distracting attention from some other source of data not now commanding media attention that would have otherwise constituted a greater problem for the powers that be?

According to the publisher’s preface, seasoned intelligence officer Tony Shaffer himself is unaware of anything incriminating in the material. And it’s already been demonstrated that some of the presumed “secrets” now redacted are actually well-known facts. Many sentences contain only one redacted word, often just an adjective or modifier, leaving one to wonder what phrasing could possibly change the sentence so much with a few letters as to justify redaction of one word but not the complete sentence.

Plus it’s noteworthy the kind of things they don’t bother to cover up – like Shaffer’s statement on p. 120:*

“Despite my reputation as a trouble-maker, I really don’t go looking for trouble, and as long as I was operations chief for our HUMINT projects in Afghanistan, my people were not going to do anything that would remotely show up on the radar as improper or illegal without good reason.” [italics added by me]

Then, of course, there’s this paragraph on p. 150:

“Jim briefed me on a creative concept for gaining intelligence on bad guys.BLACKOUTBLACKOUTBLACKOUTBLACKOUTBLACKOUTBLACKOUT. Almost like counter-intelligence operations.”

Now that does make me, as a laws-of-war-type, want to run out and buy one of those $2,000 un-redacted copies and check what was written there. But then I wonder if that’s what they want me to want to do. Reading the book starts to feel a little like participating in one of the elaborate psy-ops capers Shaffer describes. You know they’re messing with your head, but you’re not quite sure how or why.

One thing is for sure: this incident is yet another that shows how tricky new technologies are making it for powerful governments to keep the lid on state secrets. And if that’s the case, then misdirection is probably a smarter tactic than conventional classification. Perhaps the bureaucratic bungling that allowed the un-vetted manuscript to pass Army review without an eyeballing by DIA was actually a pretext: how better to throw people off the trail of real secrets than by focusing their attention on something banal that you make a show of covering up?

I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, or if this mutilated manuscript is simply the unfortunate result of the government haplessly covering up its own incompetence, but it makes you wonder.

*[I was also surprised they didn’t black out the soul-searching forays into his adolescent angst, where the author admits he used to be “painfully shy around girls” and “remained a virgin until I was twenty.” Sheesh, don’t the folks at DIA know what kind of damage that sort of thing can do to support for our troops in the Long War? People need to imagine their war heroes as virile, manly and self-assured, not all honest and human, eh?]

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