Classifying Operation Dark Heart

The U.S. Department of Defence recently pulped 9,500 copies of Operation Dark Heart, the memoirs of Anthony Shaffer, a former US Army intelligence officer. Shaffer first gained fame of a sort when he told the 9/11 Commission staff director, Philip Zelikow, that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had identified some of the terrorist cells that carried out the 911 attacks (and, incidentally, the attackers on the USS Cole in 2000) using a data-mining project called Able Danger. Shaffer’s claims, and his concurrent claim that legal considerations prevented the DIA from sharing intelligence with the FBI, were dismissed as baseless by 9/11 panelists. 

The exchange never made it into the 9/11 Commission Report, though Representative Curt Wheldon, the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Community, publicized it several years after the fact. Shaffer’s assertion that the intelligence available via Able Danger could have prevented the 9/11 attacks never gained much traction; now we have Operation Dark Heart, his personal account of the earliest days of the war in Afghanistan. 

Shaffer wrote a frank account of his time as a clandestine operative in Afghanistan, and submitted it for review to the U.S. Army. In January 2010,  Army authorities signed off on it, indicating they felt the version submitted to Shaffer’s publisher didn’t identify anything secret or otherwise harm national security. It wasn’t until July, about a month before the book was scheduled to hit the bookshelves, that the DIA got its hands on the manuscript and panicked. The  New York Times reported that DIA and other intelligence agencies identified nearly 200 problematic passages suspected of containing classified information.

The Pentagon’s response was to buy almost the entire first run of the book, destroy it, and censor the offending passages so future editions won’t cause harm. Shaffer’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, guaranteed at least 10,000 book sales, agreed to it, and a newly redacted version is due to be published.

Under normal circumstances, an intelligence agency censoring the memoirs of its former agents is pretty bland stuff. The CIA, for example, asserts the right to review everything its former employees write, ever. What made this review session so unique was its timing. Because it was so close to publication, the process by which the Pentagon had to correct the censoring issue was not only rushed, it was also high profile – and in that sense, self-defeating.

St, Martin’s Press had already distributed unredacted copies to editors and book reviewers. This made the subsequent vetting doubly interesting. The DIA’s actions essentially constituted a public admission that it couldn’t properly review a manuscript in timely fashion, ,.  Unvetted copies of the book were also already in the public domain. The New York Times has highlighted some of the redacted passages with gentle mockery (Shaffer’s pseudonym was “Chris Stryker”), we can actually draw some larger lessons about what constitutes a “secret” and what does not.

The Federation of American Scientists, an advocacy group that occasionally posts hard-to-find or censored documents, has posted to its website a comparison (pdf) of the original and the redacted index to Shaffer’s book. Many of the terms the DIA and other agencies chose to remove are not, in fact, secrets—at least on the face of it. Some examples: 

  • DIA felt the need to redact all mentions of AFSAC, or the Air Force Special Activities Center. This publicly availably PDF from 1984 explains that AFSAC provides human intelligence, or HUMINT, to deployed Air Force units (almost all mentions of HUMINT are redacted, as if usage or existence of the very term is itself a secret).  

  • DIA also struck out references to the Ariana Hotel, identified in 2005 as off-limits to civilians people because it’s the center for CIA operations in Afghanistan. Interestingly, its location is still indexed on Google Maps, and thus easily found by anyone with an Internet connection.

  • Numerous entities with pages on Wikipedia were redacted, like Task Force 5/Task Force 121 (a small hit squad); Camp Peary/The Farm, which is also spoken of by former spies like Valerie Plame; FOB Gardez, home to Afghanistan’s first Provincial Reconstruction Team, as well as the city of Gardez itself; the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC (Jeremy Scahill recently wrote an expose on it); Signals Intellignece, or SIGINT; and many more.

The issue highlights a very real problem in the way the DIA handled Shaffer’s “leak” of classified material. it drew attention to details in the book that would otherwise have passed, unnoticed, by the vast majority of potential readers. Now, redacted and unredacted versions in the public domain are available for comparison, and thousands of people will, no doubt, be digging around the Internet, trying to identify what is secret and what isn’t. They’ll wonder why references to BWI Airport and Fort Belvoir were redacted; why the single mention of Morrison, Minnesota is blacked out; why we must never know of the cities of Quetta or Peshawar in Pakistan, or even, remarkably, of the blockbuster movie The Sands of Iwo Jima, reference to which was also removed.

Some intelligence vetting is clearly necessary, but what DIA has done defies common sense. It redacted every single reference to Iran, even though senior Pentagon leaders have been open about their belief that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been ‘supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan for years They redacted any mention of the National Security Agency, even though it’s a safe bet the NSA is still listening in on phone conversations — as they were in the 1990s, which Pultizer Prize-winning books have discussed at great length. Many more pieces of information are easily cross checked in Google. Given all the openly available details that have been redacted, the reasons for censoring them make little apparent sense.

Other details are more credibly redacted. The names of specific individuals or of ongoing operations should be withheld, since their exposure could conceivably put either at risk. The Federation of American Scientists posted a few page-comparisons (pdf) of how such information was redacted; alas, the method in the madness remains elusive. Why is it a secret, for example, that the New Zealand Defense Force, which has been active in Afghanistan since 2001 and trumpets the fact on its own website, was helping the U.S. intelligence community keep track of bad guys?

So what really constitutes ”secret” information?  In the U.S., imposing higher level classification markings requires what’s known as Original Classification Authority, or OCA. The number of individuals in the government with OCA is very small. It’s also pretty obvious that, especially within the military, much information is over-classified. While every regulation on the books orders people to “default to the lower classification” whenever there is a doubt about its secrecy, the opposite usually occurs. As a result, intelligence that references a movie like The Sands of Iwo Jima sends a government censor into a conniption because, in some small way, it alludes to something that probably wasn’t secret to begin with… but might have been.

This has a pernicious effect on the war and on society as a whole. Whether the government likes it or not, most of this information is not a secret—it is discussed far too often, and far too openly, to consider it one. 

In the end, we don’t really lose all that much from censoring Shaffer’s book. The few passages posted online suggest a fairly straightforward description of what some in the intelligence community did in Afghanistan. But the grander dynamic at play—the intelligence community’s desperate scramble to keep a lid on frivolous information—is much more worrying. America’s intelligence agencies don’t appear to have a good handle on what their own people reveal to the outside world, yet they react with panic and fury when they realize how leaky their organizations are. Making things worse, their attempts to clean up the mess simply draws attention to what it was they were trying to hide—making it more likely, not less, that something bad might come from the uncensored version of Operation Dark Heart. We obviously don’t know what that could be, but maybe that says something, too.