The Spooks Love Their Secrecy

October 22, 2014–Fifty-two years ago today President John F. Kennedy made a nationwide television address from the Oval Office to reveal that U.S. intelligence had discovered the Soviet Union was sending nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. The news was stunning, and inaugurated one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War. President Kennedy and those around him knew that dangers lurked, so for over a week after receiving the critical intelligence they took measures to keep it a secret. That secrecy had a point. It helped Kennedy craft a response to the Soviet move before the political pressures of the crisis began to mount.

There are secrets that are important, that are legitimate, that serve to protect United States national security. The discovery of missiles in Cuba, until the president chose to reveal them, was one. But in the years since the secrecy system has gotten out of control. Readers of this space will know that I write often of this. Today I am driven to do so again. The morning papers report that Leon Panetta, erstwhile director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who has just published a memoir, had to fight the agency to get his book into print. The Panetta book, called Worthy Fights, has now become an example of secrecy with no point, of the CIA’s addiction to cloaking its dagger, and its delusion that it can hide behind classification regulations.

In point of fact Panetta was a light touch. He has nothing bad to say about the CIA, supported its activities as director, and avoids going near such controversies as Langley’s fight with Senate overseers seeking to examine its torture projects–a fight that began on Leon Panetta’s watch. Worthy Fights is complimentary to the agency and its people. Why should former director Panetta have had a problem?

As the holder of a security clearance that entitled him to view top secret information Leon Panetta signed a contract that bound him to submit things he writes about the agency to a CIA unit called the Publications Review Board. This board operates under regulations that specifically prohibit it from withholding its approval on any grounds other than dangers to national security–but as I showed at great length in my book The Family Jewels those rules are often honored in the breach.

The Publications Review Board (PRB) was created in the late 1970s during the Carter administration. The only CIA director writing a memoir at the time was Bill Colby and he ended up with a $10,000 fine levied against him for going to press before the board had approved. Admiral Stansfield Turner was the director at the time PRB emerged. When Turner wrote his own memoir later, the PRB obstructed him at every turn. The admiral estimated that he spent as much as fifteen percent of his time on that project just dealing with the Review Board. Much of Stan Turner’s text ended up on the cutting room floor.

Only two of the eight CIA directors between Turner and Panetta ever attempted memoirs (Robert M. Gates, George J. Tenet), plus there was Richard Helms, whose tenure had preceded the existence of this system. All of them went through the PRB wringer. All of them have commented on the Review Board’s work as usually helpful and courteous. What happened? The war on terror.

All the memoirs just mentioned were far more substantive than Leon Panetta’s panegyric. Panetta might have been critical of Barack Obama but of CIA he is very complementary. But the PRB sat on his manuscript, risking his publication schedule. The Washington Post reports that the former director finally appealed the delays to his present successor, John Brennan. On specifics of the text Panetta complained to a Brennan deputy that the Review Board demanded excessive changes. He failed. The Post reports, “even signature moments of [Panetta’s] tenure that were covered extensively in the press are obscured.”

As a result, you won’t get the low down on CIA drones, or on its torture projects, from Leon Panetta. Nor, as discussed here previously (“Senate Torture Report 1.75,” July 27, 2014), will you get it from John Brennan. The agency whose mission is to tell the truth is heavily invested in an effort to mislead the public at any cost. Regulations be damned. That is the Publications Review Board doing its job.

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