Talker, author, censor, spy
WHEN “The Invisible Government,” the book about U.S. intelligence I coauthored with Thomas B. Ross, was published in 1964, the CIA considered buying up all the copies to keep them out of bookstores. The book upset the agency because it was the first serious study of the CIA’s activities, about which the public knew almost nothing at the time. Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, my publisher, responded that he would be happy to sell the first printing to the CIA -- but would then order another printing for the public, and another printing, and another. The agency abandoned its silly scheme.
Because neither Ross nor I had ever worked for the spy agency, we were not required to submit our book to its censors, and we did not. The publication last week of former CIA Director George Tenet’s tome, “At the Center of the Storm,” is an indicator of just how much things have changed since our book was released.
Five former CIA chiefs, in addition to Tenet, have written books, and dozens of other agency and former case officers have joined the literary ranks as well. Because CIA employees sign secrecy agreements, all have had to submit their manuscripts in advance for clearance by the agency, which has blown hot and cold on which books and which secrets it allows to make their way into bookstores.
There are, apparently, good secrets and bad secrets, and it may depend in part on who’s telling them. For example, Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, a former senior CIA operative, was allowed to reveal the countries in which he was stationed in his 1997 book, “A Spy for All Seasons.” But vast sections of a more critical book, “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence,” were deleted when Victor Marchetti, a former agency officer, and John D. Marks, a former State Department analyst, published their work in 1974. The authors left big spaces in the book, marked “Deleted.” Among the items chopped out were the disclosure of covert CIA aid to Peru in the 1960s and a description of the supersecret National Reconnaissance Office that operates U.S. spy satellites. After the authors successfully fought back in court, half of the deleted material was included in the paperback edition. But the battle suggested that the CIA wields a heavier pencil on critics.
More recently, Michael F. Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, was permitted in 2004 to publish “Imperial Hubris.” But Scheuer said he was required to use the pseudonym “Anonymous.” The book was a harsh attack on the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies, but it reportedly was not censored much. After Scheuer began appearing on television, the agency clamped down, and his publisher said he was told there would be no more interviews without the CIA’s prior written approval.
Then there is the case of Gary Berntsen, a 23-year CIA veteran who ran the agency’s largest operation in Afghanistan after 9/11. Berntsen claims that Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, then the agency’s No. 3 official (and since indicted on corruption charges), warned him at dinner that then-CIA Director Porter Goss wanted no more books published by agency scribes. “I will redact the [expletive] out of your book, so no one will want to read it,” Foggo warned, according to Berntsen.
In its initial review of his manuscript, Berntsen said, the CIA cut about five pages. But when it was sent upstairs, 70 more pages were chopped, and Berntsen suspected Foggo’s hand at work. Berntsen went ahead and published his heavily censored book, “Jawbreaker,” in 2005, then filed a still-pending lawsuit against the CIA in federal court. Berntsen charged that Foggo later told him, “Porter Goss wants no books, and I am enforcing his wishes.”
Milton Bearden, a retired agency veteran and former chief of its Soviet division, said he was lucky: The CIA’s censors cut very little from “The Main Enemy,” the work he wrote with journalist James Risen about the CIA’s long-running war against the KGB. The book was published in 2003 and revealed intimate details of specific operations.
Asked why so many more books by ex-CIA officers are appearing these days, Bearden replied: “It’s hard to deny publication to former directors who have access to their papers. In the past, it was ingrained in the culture: You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to retire to Vermont and raise Christmas trees. [But] it started with Dulles.”
Allen W. Dulles’ “The Craft of Intelligence,” published in 1963 after he left the CIA, was a noncontroversial primer on the spy business.
Other directors -- William Colby, Robert Gates, Stansfield Turner, Richard Helms and now Tenet -- have followed in his footsteps. And the money is good. Tenet reportedly received $4 million from HarperCollins for his book, which he wrote with his former agency flack, Bill Harlow. He was said to have almost signed a contract for an even larger sum with Crown Books in 2004 but withdrew from that deal about the same time President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on him.
But woe to the CIA director who defies the censors. The agency cut from Colby’s memoir his account of how the CIA had secretly raised part of a sunken Russian submarine. When he neglected to delete the story from the French edition, he had to pay a $10,000 fine to the agency.
The CIA unit that in theory decides what must remain classified and what secrets ex-agency officers can reveal is the Publications Review Board, currently headed by the board’s longtime lawyer, Richard Puhl. But according to Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who represents Berntsen as well as other former CIA employees, the board is often overruled by the agency’s spooks.
“The PRB,” Zaid said, “is one of the better units inside the agency. I’ve been impressed with their attitude toward openness. They are supposed to be the last word. But in practice, they aren’t.”
Zaid said he believes the flood of books by supposedly tight-lipped spies stems from what he calls “a fundamental shift in attitude in the last 30 years” within the CIA. “It used to be you would never write about the agency.”
Bearden said there were two rules to abide by: “Don’t do anything that hurts anybody -- don’t expose someone living in a dacha and playing with his great-grandchildren; you don’t want to get the guy hanged. And don’t do anything to make things difficult for the people still at Langley.”
Today, like presidential memoirists, CIA directors have discovered that selling their secrets to the public between hard covers can reap big bucks. It’s a slam dunk.