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Operation Silence Shaffer

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A fascinating new chapter in the story of the intelligence community’s obsessive secrecy is the Pentagon’s duel with St Martin’s Press over Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer’s book, Operation Dark Heart. Chris McGreal gives a run-down in The Guardian:

The US defence department is scrambling to dispose of what threatens to be a highly embarrassing exposé by the former intelligence officer of secret operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of how the US military top brass missed the opportunity to win the war against the Taliban. The department of defence is in talks with St Martin’s Press to purchase the entire first print run on the grounds of national security. The publisher is content to sell the books but the two sides are in a grinding dispute over what should appear in a censored version and when it should be released.

Now St Martin’s Press says it will put the partly redacted manuscript on sale next week whether or not the defence department likes it – and there doesn’t appear much the authorities can do. The army had cleared the book by Lieutenant Colonel Shaffer, about “black ops” in the Afghan war when he was based at Bagram in 2003, for publication after relatively minor changes. But when the intelligence services and defence department officials saw it they were alarmed.

This account leaves a key player in the shadows. JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, has become a power unto itself within the Pentagon. In essence, Shaffer’s book went through the regular review and clearance process, was approved for publication, and then JSOC had a temper tantrum. The thrust of their objection was simple: “Our people don’t talk about JSOC operations, period.” In their view, special forces officers are subject to a code of silence. This view would seem to clash with the U.S. Constitution, and the notion of a duty to be silent also seems odd in a Pentagon headed by Robert Gates, who built his Washington comeback on a tell-all bestseller, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story.

According to an individual involved in negotiations between St Martin’s and the Pentagon, the publishers plan to have the book in bookstores around the country within a fortnight. St Martin’s is proposing to black out all passages about which the Pentagon raised questions—a process that of course reveals the Pentagon’s concerns to the reader. The Pentagon has replied that it would then insist on striking whole paragraphs, even where most of the text raises no questions of sensitivity. The publisher and author believe that many of the questions raised at this late stage have no bona fide basis, and they will insist on review of claims and subsequent disclosure if their challenge is sustained. This mirrors the process following Matthew Alexander’s book How to Break a Terrorist, where extensive censorship efforts by the Pentagon also failed when put to the test before a classifications review board.

Throughout the war on terror, JSOC has succeeded in keeping the wraps on its black ops in a way the CIA has not. That’s a key reason why Colonel Shaffer’s book is so eagerly anticipated. Nothing sells a book like an effort to suppress it. The Pentagon’s belated and ham-handed efforts to silence Colonel Shaffer’s book may be a blessing in disguise for St Martin’s Press.

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