As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Americans will be taking measure of our government’s response to those events. To be sure, the American reaction included selflessness, dedication, and bravery, but it also included some harebrained and counterproductive steps. As John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot teach us, one of the strengths of a democracy is its ability to engage in candid self-assessment — “government by discussion” — in order to ascertain where those in power have made mistakes, and to correct their errors.
Mistakes are inevitable in government. What is essential is that they be identified, and that steps be taken to avoid their institutionalization or repetition. This process is impeded by the natural tendency of the powerful to try to limit critical discussion so that they may avoid embarrassment and the political costs that democracy exacts from leaders who have erred. But one of the fundamental distinctions between an authoritarian society and a genuine democracy is precisely that a democracy forces truth to the surface and weighs it as essential to the nation’s political dialogue.
The heavy hand of censorship has never been wielded more clumsily by the nation’s intelligence community than it is being wielded right now. Scott Shane of the New York Times brought a striking example to light on Friday, in a report on the CIA’s efforts to suppress a forthcoming book by former FBI agent Ali Soufan:
In what amounts to a fight over who gets to write the history of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, the Central Intelligence Agency is demanding extensive cuts from the memoir of a former F.B.I. agent who spent years near the center of the battle against Al Qaeda.
The agent, Ali H. Soufan, argues in the book that the C.I.A. missed a chance to derail the 2001 plot by withholding from the F.B.I. information about two future 9/11 hijackers living in San Diego, according to several people who have read the manuscript. And he gives a detailed, firsthand account of the C.I.A.’s move toward brutal treatment in its interrogations, saying the harsh methods used on the agency’s first important captive, Abu Zubaydah, were unnecessary and counterproductive.
Nothing in Soufan’s argument is really new. The accusations concerning the two al Qaeda operatives in Southern California, for example, figure heavily in a documentary for which former Bush Administration counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke was interviewed. In an excerpt recently aired on a PBS affiliate in Colorado, Clarke reveals his suspicion that the CIA was attempting to recruit and turn the two operatives, and that the Agency suppressed information about its egregious error afterward. As Clarke notes, the affair escaped detection in the various probes undertaken after 9/11, including the 9/11 Commission report (.pdf). His comments track Lawrence Wright’s analysis in the award-winning book The Looming Tower. These potentially explosive revelations have so far drawn very little attention from major American broadcast and print media, but the publication of Soufan’s book could well inspire a second look. The CIA is attempting to avoid such embarrassment by expunging statements Soufan made in a Congressional hearing, and to obviate his acknowledgement — which appears many times in the public record — that he was involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.
The Agency’s efforts are part of a significantly larger campaign. Just weeks ago, former senior CIA operative Glenn Carle published an account of his time as the case officer for Haji Pacha Wazir, who had been accused of being “bin Laden’s banker.” Carle and his colleagues soon established that these accusations were baseless, but their recommendation that he be released went unheeded, and Pacha Wazir was subjected to abuse for seven years in the apparent interest of covering up a CIA mistake. Forty percent of Carle’s book was blacked out by CIA censors, including most of the information that would have identified his prisoner as Pacha Wazir.
Other accounts were similarly butchered, and some were suppressed entirely, including a devastating account of Operation Evil Airlift, the Cheney-approved Pakistani airlift from Kunduz in November 2001 that included hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
From the perspective of democratic dialogue, it’s essential that the United States investigate and understand what went wrong in such operations, especially if they may have undermined national security. But the increasingly thin pretexts for CIA censorship of agents’ books demonstrate that the Agency’s guiding concerns are protecting itself, playing interagency politics, and justifying its stratospheric budget.
The overreach implicit in its swipe at Ali Soufan points to the need for intervention from a higher level. In an executive order issued shortly after he became president, Barack Obama directed that national security classifications not be invoked to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error,” nor to “prevent embarrassment.” But the CIA’s censorship rampage suggests that that is precisely what is taking place. The time has come for Obama to enforce his order, showing bureaucrats that there are negative consequences for censorship, and demonstrating that overclassification is an assault on the democratic underpinnings of our society.