The Central Intelligence Agency has launched an internal investigation of its Publication Review Board, which has recently come under sustained fire for what some say is a policy of censorship. The review board is charged with scrutinizing the work of case-officers-turned-authors, who must have their manuscripts scrubbed of classified material, and of what the agency determines to be sensitive sources and methods. The board is explicitly forbidden from censoring material just because it is embarrassing to the agency, or critical of its activities.
The review process is mandatory for all current and former members of the CIA, and signing an agreement to abide by its terms is a condition of employment. The board's responsibility is not limited to book-length manuscripts; it also evaluates speeches, editorials, book reviews, essays, and movie scripts. One reason it's essential for the PRB to remain impartial is because officers are bound to its process for life.
Some ex-CIA employees have tried to bypass the system, and have suffered as a result. One former case officer, who writes under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, ignored the findings of the board and published his book anyway. The CIA opted not to prosecute, but did sue Jones in civil court for breach of contract. The threshold for a conviction in a criminal trial would have been much higher, but more importantly, a full trial would have exposed the agency to "graymail." Former members of the intelligence community who are put on the stand are obliged to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." That's a bit too much truth for the CIA. The fear of secret information getting out during testimony has protected more than a few ex-spies from prosecution under the Espionage Act.
The Interrogator: An Education is a fascinating and disturbing book that has very clearly been pushed through the meat grinder of the Publication Review Board.
The frustrations associated with certain injunctions on writing about national security go all the way to the 7th floor at Langley. Stansfield Turner, former Director of Central Intelligence, once grumbled about his inability to mention the National Reconnaissance Office by name in an article — an organization long acknowledged by the Defense Department, and extensively covered in the press. (This was for an article in Foreign Affairs. He was forced to refer to the NRO as a "satellite reconnaissance agency," and wrote, "For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, the true name of this agency is classified.")
Today, The Interrogator: An Education, by Glenn Carle, is a contemporary example — a fascinating and disturbing book that has very clearly been pushed through the meat grinder of the Publication Review Board. Carle is a former member of the CIA Clandestine Service, and his book recounts his experiences interrogating a high-value detainee at a "black site" (off-the-books) prison. More to the point, it is a revealing look at how officers worked honorably as their agency, facing an impossible assignment, fell into a slow moral corruption.
What's especially interesting about Carle's book is that it spatially maintains the redacted text, with solid black bars in the missing text's place. Sometimes it's vast swaths of prose; sometimes it's single words or sentences. Carle footnotes many of the excisions with which he takes exception. In one instance: "The six redacted lines... do not describe what specifically we sought to learn, who [the detainee] was, what he had been doing before rendition — no 'source' or 'method' is revealed. Apparently the CIA fears that the redacted passage would either humiliate the organization for incompetence or expose its officers to ridicule; unless the Agency considers obtuse incompetence a secret intelligence method."
During an interview by telephone, Carle described the publication review process. "Depending on the complexity of the text they must review, they farm it out to the relevant parts of the agency. For example, my book touches upon terrorism, issues of the law, the Middle East, and renditions. So they would send it to the Counterterrorism Center, to the Office of the General Counsel, to the relevant Middle Eastern desks — if I had been in Kuwait, it would have gone to the Kuwaiti desk, and so on. And something quite sensitive, as my book is, would have gone to the front office of the CIA, for the directors' staff's perusal. Each of those offices goes through the manuscript and deletes whatever they think is necessary. They send the redacted, commented versions back to the Publication Review Board, which puts them all together. (There can be back and forth there — why did you take this out? And so on.) The PRB puts together the single response text, and they send that back to the author, who has a certain amount of time to contest changes."
Forty thousand words were cut from 100,000-word manuscript. Carle had to rewrite the book 12 times. "On significant issues," he said, "they will have sitdown meetings. Representatives from each of the critical parts of the agency relevant to my manuscript sat across the table. And then we went line-by-line. Or theme-by-theme. In my book, I give some examples of the foolishness I had to address, but I'll give you a specific example. In one place I wrote that I found myself surrounded by football-sized stones. They took that sentence out. I said, 'Why did you take that out? That's not a source or a method.' And they said, 'Stones can indicate a location.' And I was incredulous. The whole world is made out of rocks!" After a debate, Carle was allowed to keep the stones. "I had to do that line-by-line."
As word got around about The Interrogator, the responses varied. "A couple of colleagues came to me and said, 'Glenn, why are you writing this book? You are — quote — aiding and abetting the enemy. You should not air our dirty laundry.'" But other members of the CIA had a different response. "They said, 'Glenn, please write this book. Someone has to tell the country what has been going on.'" Overall, the response was positive. "I anticipated both responses. But overwhelmingly, to my knowledge, my peers have supported my efforts to tell the truth about appalling things."
Which is why the CIA's internal investigation of the Publication Review Board is so important. The results will resonate beyond the perimeter fences at Langley, and affect more than dollar signs for book deals by former spies. There is no better group to help police the deep state and the intelligence community than its members, past and present. And publication is the most effective way for them to press for change.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
Subscribe to the Week