The New York Times reported Thursday that the Department of Defense is in the midst of negotiations with the publisher of the book, "Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan -- and the Path to Victory," by retired Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, over how to deal with the 10,000 copies that have already been printed.
But with dozens of unredacted review copies already in the hands of newspaper and magazine editors, it's unlikely that taking books off the shelves will be enough to keep under wraps whatever it is the Pentagon wants to stay secret. Already, original review copies of the book are being offered for sale online at upward of $500.
"It probably would have made a lot more sense to never do anything, and nobody would have been the wiser," said Mark Zaid, Shaffer's attorney. (Shaffer is not speaking publicly about the controversy, at the request of the Army.) "Fewer people would have read the book, and most of those people would have been inside the government, or people who already knew this stuff. Now, the government has highlighted that there's something in this book that everyone wants to see."
According to the Times, this is the first known instance of the government attempting to retract sensitive material so late in the publication process.
Shaffer, who served as a Department of Defense intelligence officer and received the Bronze Star for his duties in Afghanistan, is a well-known figure in 9/11 conspiracy circles. In 2003, he publicly accused the intelligence community of ignoring pre-Sept.11 clues about Mohammed Atta, one of the eventual hijackers. A report by the DOD Inspector General's Office found no evidence to support Shaffer's claims, but that hasn't stopped Shaffer from continuing to speak out about other allegations of misconduct, making him a persistent nuisance to government secrecy efforts.
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Rene White, said that "the manuscript did not undergo a prepublication information security review" at the higher levels of the DOD until less than a month before the book was originally scheduled to be released. But Zaid says that Shaffer had in fact properly submitted his book for review to his superiors in the Army Reserve. If the Army did not pass it on to the Defense Department, he said, that was not Shaffer's responsibility.
"It is true that the DOD regulations were not followed the way DOD wanted them to be," Zaid said. "But it was not true that Tony Shaffer was at fault for that."
Authors writing about sensitive matters have long run up against seemingly arbitrary rulings on what qualifies as too sensitive to publish, and in some cases have taken to leaving the censor's black lines in the final manuscript as a way of publicly indicating the extent of what they were barred from saying.
Bob Baer, a former CIA officer who has had several books undergo stringent security clearances, said, "More than once there was no rhyme nor reason for what was taken out." He added, "I left in the barred-out parts to tell the reader that I believed I had evidence to back up my argument but wasn't allowed to make it public."
"The net result is that if a censored version of the book is published, the effect of that will be to highlight precisely those passages that the government wanted to conceal," said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project. "At this point, it's close to a no-win situation, and the smart move [for the government] would have been, and might still be, to do nothing."