Lt. Col Shaffer vs. the Pentagon

An interview with the embattled author of Operation Dark Heart

by , January 14, 2011

While the news and debate over government secrecy has been all but dominated by WikiLeaks, a decorated Army reserve officer and former clandestine intelligence agent has quietly sued the Pentagon, claiming it has tried to censor his story of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. 

As you may recall, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer’s personal accounts in Operation Dark Heart were supposed to blow the lid off what he charges were devastating mistakes and miscalculations by the Defense Intelligence Agency (he was an intelligence officer for 25 years) and the U.S. Army, before and after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In fact, he’s said he can recall the "exact moment in time" where the war "went off the rails" and "into the ditch it’s in right now."  

That was before the Pentagon got involved in the eleventh hour, bought up most of the only copies of the first edition in print, destroyed them, then forced the publisher into redacting large, critical portions of the book before it could print the second edition in 2010. 

In an interview with Antiwar.com, Shaffer explains how the Pentagon reacted "emotionally" to his book, and how the military has been retaliating against him. He also says he believes the military is trying desperately to control how Americans perceive the war – and using the interests of "national security" to do it. 

Lt. Col Shaffer and his book, Operation Dark Heart

"We can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that one hundred percent of the redacting was done not to create a sense of security for the American public, but to obfuscate what is really going on (in the war)," Shaffer said. But by destroying the books and announcing it to the world, it brought more attention to what Shaffer has to say than ever, he charged. 

"There is a thirst for knowledge, that is what is going on."  

The Pentagon has said it would not comment on ongoing litigation. 

After Shaffer got the first edition cleared by the Army Reserve brass last spring, he announced publicly that the book would be out that summer and his publishers, St. Martin’s Press, ran off the first copies and had sent out about 60 or 70 to reviewers when the Boots came marching in. 

The Pentagon said there were "issues we were very concerned with" in the book, claiming that it was filled with classified information and that Shaffer never submitted the book for review to the Pentagon. Shaffer said that as an Army Reserve officer, he followed the rules of the Army Reserve and had it thoroughly vetted and approved all the way up the chain of command. Furthermore his ghostwriter and researcher Jacqueline Salmon, a former Washington Post writer, combed the manuscript fully to ensure everything in it could be found in the public domain. The Army Reserve officers vetting the manuscript found no classified information in it either.  

Nevertheless, the Pentagon, unable to stop the scheduled release of the first edition, spent almost $50,000 to buy the remaining 9,500 copies in print and proceeded to destroy them – on the claim that the book contained classified information and "could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to national security," according to comments in the press and a letter (.pdf) written from Lt. Gen Ronald Burgess, Director of the DIA, to Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, dated Aug. 6, 2010. 

There’s a Fahrenheit 451 evocation for you – men in fatigues burning (or shredding) thousands of copies of a fellow soldiers’ memoirs. "When we heard they were going to destroy them we said, ‘this doesn’t make sense, this is unheard of,’" said Shaffer. "I have never heard of this level of incidence in terms of them going after a book." 

Shaffer, who is still an Army Reserve officer, was "allowed" to reprint the book, but with redactions in over 250 of the 320 pages. Now the current edition is punctuated by black lines invoking some over-eager, or bored, Cold War censor. 

So Operation Dark Heart is now on the shelves, but Shaffer isn’t finished. Arguing his First Amendment right to free speech, Shaffer is suing the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency to get the original Dark Heart reprinted, sans the big black lines. If he wins, Shaffer will set an important precedent and hopefully a bulwark against future Pentagon intimidation, secrecy and the attempted editorial whitewashing of wartime accounts. 

And Shaffer is not afraid to say it loudly and often. "There is a great deal of effort that’s been made, I believe, to editorialize the war. One of the reasons I did my book was to explore and to present to the American public the rest of the story about why the war went off track, and frankly, much of the Pentagon’s concerns, I believe, were not security-related. They had more to do with embarrassment and trying to dodge accountability for some very bad decisions made in 2003 and 2004," Shaffer told 9 News Now in December.  

Mark Zaid, Shaffer’s attorney, told Antiwar.com that he has represented a couple dozen authors over the last 15 years who have resisted CIA or military censoring, but it is the first time the Pentagon went so far as to destroy books.  

"Believe me, I know the Pentagon Papers’ whistleblower (Daniel Ellsberg)," Shaffer said to Antiwar.com. "A lot of the same things he saw then, are going on now. The Pentagon is working very hard to control the narrative." 

Investigative journalist Peter Lance, author of Triple Cross, and Cover-up, has a copy of the original Dark Heart and scoffs at the level of what he calls picayune redacting – in one case changing a "she" to "he," eliminating the title of the John Wayne movie, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and changing one officer’s name from John Olivero to Juan Negro, even though the man is now retired and had long since given Shaffer permission to be named outright in the book.  

Lance told Antiwar.com that he compared both editions and Googled everything that had been blacked out. Shaffer’s right, he said, it’s all in the public domain. 

"When I assessed the facts I figured out he is basically getting screwed," Lance said. "It’s a conspiracy to cover up embarrassment. If you cover it up and don’t want people to know about it, and use national security and stuff like that to avoid it then nothing will ever get better … it just scabs and scabs and nothing gets better, nothing ever closes." 

From many conversations he has had with Shaffer over the last five years and seeing the information that was later redacted, it’s clear to Lance that there were "incendiary bombs" in the first edition that would have made the military look pretty bad. He has an excellent write up of the case in the January, 2011, edition of Playboy (.pdf).  

Shaffer is hardly a rogue, and certainly not antiwar in the classic sense. But he says he is finding a lot of common ground with people who have long been, or just coming around to, questioning the war. He says his personal story, his struggle to do his job effectively and to "make sure that what was broken in the system got fixed," revealed to him that the government in many ways was working against itself. He began, as Lance put it in his article, to realize that there has been a long, "running battle," between "desk jockeys who would conceal mistakes made during the war on terror and field operatives who seek to reveal the truth in hope of fixing a broken intelligence system."   

As he tells it, Shaffer’s break with the brass came before his book was even conceived – it came when he realized that there was a higher premium placed on saving face than on getting to the truth. 

From "The Private War of Anthony Shaffer," in Playboy

Shaffer’s book rips the lid off several stories the bureaucrats wanted to suppress: the role of a program named Able Danger in yielding information that could have uncovered the 9/11 plot; Operation Dark Heart, which could have nabbed Al Qaeda’s number two leader; and early indications that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, actively supported the Taliban. These are the incendiary bombs the censors tried to defuse. And this is the real story of Tony Shaffer’s book. 

All three issues were explained in the first edition and removed, said Lance.  

Able Danger is the name of a secret 1999 DIA operation which used a state-of-the-art data mining program to find links between al-Qaeda and now-accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was then wanted in connection with several terrorist events, including the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Shaffer has contended that Able Danger turned up the names of four of the 9/11 hijackers by early 2000. According to Shaffer, in December 2000, despite the team’s findings, the DoD said the data-mining program was probably illegal and ordered all of the data destroyed. Shaffer said he pushed hard to get what he did know about the future hijackers to the FBI, but meetings were repeatedly canceled. After 9/11 he was able to get a hearing in 2003 with the 9/11 Commission when it was visiting Afghanistan, and believed he was telling the panel for the first time about Able Danger. Commission executive director Philip Zelikow asked to speak with Shaffer further when he got back stateside, but according to Shaffer the meeting was never to be; Zelikow’s office never called him back and Shaffer’s account never included in the final report.  

Able Danger broke in the newspapers and Shaffer eventually lost his security clearances, his access to all of his old files and his job at the DIA — he believes in direct retaliation for his Able Danger disclosures. Meanwhile, subsequent Congressional and internal reports on the issue pretty much declared the Able Danger story a fiction (.pdf), though Shaffer says he and his fellow Able Danger staff were not allowed to testify on Capitol Hill during the high profile hearings. Able Danger was not included in the final 9/11 Commission report.  

But if Shaffer’s lawsuit is successful, the full story will be in the paperback edition of Operation Dark Heart, due this summer, as well as two other controversial accounts by Shaffer – the Army’s missed opportunity to break up an al Qaeda hotbed in Wana, Pakistan, and early indications that Pakistani intelligence (InterServices Intelligence) was in league with the Taliban all along (classified military cables published via WikiLeaks last summer helps to bear this out).

Zaid said he is "incredibly optimistic" that when faced with the facts, the judge will allow a number of the currently redacted portions of the story to be reinstated and Zaid will enjoy defending each and every one in court. "The point of the lawsuit is that neither I nor Tony has the authority to say (the government’s) decisions are wrong — that has to come from (the government) or a federal judge, to slap them in their face and say they were wrong and I’m pretty confident that will happen." 

What other vets have to say 

Anti-war veterans say Shaffer’s story echoes a much broader and more insidious threat – that the military is trying not only to manage American’s perception of the ongoing war, but alter its role in the history books. 

"The Pentagon has a long history of keeping embarrassing things secret," said Matt Southworth, legislative director for the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a member of Iraq War Veterans Against the War. 

 "If the average person had a better understanding of what ‘collateral damage’ really meant, if they understood better the depth of profiteering which takes place in Afghanistan on the backs of the American taxpayer and under the guise of democracy and freedom, it would be unconscionable for most to continue support. These messages exist, but are consistently overshadowed by the public narrative provided by the Pentagon’s media machine," the Iraq War veteran told Antiwar.com in an email.  

"This is the philosophical underpinning for every ad-hominem argument against Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Matthew Hoh, Daniel Ellsberg, and other individuals who dissent. The policy is never challenged or questioned, just the merits and motives of those who disagree," Southworth added. 

 "What the Pentagon doesn’t realize (or is afraid to admit) is that the information is going to get out somehow. We live in a post-Wikileaks environment where transparency will be forced if necessary. The game has changed and it has changed in support of freedom of speech," said Peter Neiger, an Iraq war veteran and program director at Students for Liberty.  

"Operation Dark Heart will be made available somehow, and if the government continues to attempt to silence the release it is only going to make more people realize the government is hiding something. Hopefully more military personnel who have knowledge will step forward and share their stories." 

That’ll mean that while Shaffer’s case may be an important step towards protecting the history of the war, it’s not the end of the battle. Daniel Lakemacher, a former Navy medic who served at Guantanamo Bay and left the military in 2009 under conscientious objector status, points out that books written by credible, decorated career military officers like Shaffer are a particular threat to the military, even more so than WikiLeaks. Especially when their stories are afforded the legitimacy of a big publishing house and a book that lands on the popular commercial reading lists. 

"It’s much easier to disregard a story that’s floating around on the Internet than a hard-backed copy of a book sitting on the shelves at Border’s," said Lakemacher.  

Spending upwards of $50,000 to destroy it is all they can do at this point to try and control the fact that most people think the war is finished, he added. "The Pentagon knows it’s a losing battle," he said. The only "clear interpretation of all this is they are more interested in saving face than saving lives."

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos