Banned Books Week: How Bad Is 2010?

In honor of Banned Books Week, here's a story full of adventure and mystery: like, why did the Department of Defense recently buy and destroy 9,500 copies of an officer's memoir to "safeguard state secrets?"

The book, Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan — and The Path to Victory, was written by Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. It's a chronicle of his time in Afghanistan leading a black-ops team. Says the book's description,

Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer had run intelligence operations for years before he arrived in Afghanistan. He was part of the "dark side of the force"—-the shadowy elements of the U.S. government that function outside the bounds of the normal system. His group called themselves the Jedi Knights and pledged to use the dark arts of espionage to protect the country from its enemies. Shaffer's mission to Afghanistan, however, was unlike any he had ever experienced before. There, he led a black-ops team on the forefront of the military efforts to block the Taliban's resurgence. They not only planned complex intelligence operations to beat back the insurgents, but also played a key role in executing those operations—-outside the wire. They succeeded in striking at the core of the Taliban and their safe havens across the border in Pakistan. For a moment Shaffer saw us winning the war. Then the military brass got involved. The policies that top officials relied on were hopelessly flawed. Shaffer and his team were forced to sit and watch as the insurgency grew—-just across the border in Pakistan. This wasn't the first time he had seen bureaucracy stand in the way of national security. He had participated in Able Danger, the aborted intelligence operation that identified many of the future 9/11 terrorists but failed to pursue them. His attempt to reveal the truth to the 9/11 Commission would not go over well with his higher-ups.
Operation Dark Heart tells the story of what really went on—and what went wrong—in Afghanistan. Shaffer witnessed firsthand the tipping point, when what seemed like certain victory turned into failure. Now, in this book, he maps out a way that could put us on the path to winning the war.

Even though the author claims the book got the green light from Army Reserve brass, higher-ups disagreed — albeit too late to stop publication — and the Pentagon has been quite open about their actions. Says Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. April Cunningham to CNN, "DoD decided to purchase copies of the first printing because they contained information which could cause damage to national security," an echo of an August memo from the Defense Intelligence Agency in which an officer wrote that he'd "identified significant classified information, the release of which I have determined could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to national security."

Like what? "Secret activities of the U.S. Special Operations Command, CIA and National Security Agency," according to the same DIA memo. Shaffer has let it be known that he considers this nonsense, telling CNN that he and his editors worked "to make sure nothing in the book would be detrimental to national security...When you look at what they took out (in the 2nd edition), it's lunacy,"

Since the buying/destruction spree, St. Martin's Press — which is being reimbursed by the DoD — has put out a second printing that "incorporates changes" and — no joke — redacts "other text he (Shaffer) was told was classified." By which we mean, black lines through words. While CNN cites rumors that "original" versions are floating around EBay for absurd prices, we only found redacted versions — albeit one selling, absurdly, for $50.

The timing, like we said, is particularly fitting, but of course books are banned throughout the year. Writing on the subject, the American Library Association writes,

Sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries. Frequently, challenges are motivated by the desire to protect children. While the intent is commendable, this method of protection contains hazards far greater than exposure to the "evil" against which it is leveled. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in Texas v. Johnson, said, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society fi nds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Individuals may restrict what they themselves or their children read, but they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material.

You can see a list of this year's challenged titles via an ALA PDF, and it makes for fascinating reading. There's the not-unexpected (Mastering Multiple Position Sex, challenged in Ohio) to the unlikely (Anne Frank, accused in Virginia of "sexual material and homosexual themes") to the plain weird: a father in Wichita Falls, Texas says he "will not stop" until The Egypt Game is banned from schools. Many of those challenged contain sexual and homosexual themes; in the bulk of cases, schools and libraries didn't ban outright but imposed restrictions or alternatives. Perhaps the most ironic is this account of Adam Selzer's How to Get Suspended and Influence People, which was "challenged at the Nampa, Idaho Public Library (2009) by a parent appalled that the cover included an abstract drawing of a nude woman and the back cover contains some profanity. The book explores the theme of censorship through the eyes of a gifted eighth-grader who is suspended after making an avant-garde sex-education video for a class project."

One presumes the Pentagon's concerns are at least slightly more substantive — although we can't know, of course. And whereas the ALA has lists of every book complaint, this case is naturally shrouded in mystery. And the plot thickens...sorta. Writes one reader on Amazon,

I searched high and low for this book. Every possible website you could think of; some saying that the item wasn't in stock, some that it was available for pre-order and would be delivered 23 December, 2010, still others not even mentioning that it's not available until after you purchased it. The latter is what I dealt with. I found the book on a site that shall remain nameless, and it was the 1st edition, uncensored print. It was in stock for $17.98, so I promptly placed my order. The following day I checked my order status, ecstatic that I was lucky enough to snag a copy of this now infamous book, only to find that my order was still being "processed." After checking the status of the item itself, I was deflated when I saw that it was no longer available, with an availability date of 24 September, 2010. I promptly canceled my order as I knew that I would not be getting the 1st edition print, but rather the redacted, government approved edition when the supply was replenished on 24 September, 2010. The fact that the we all have been denied access to this literature is a violation of our rights, and I don't think that I should have to shell out $1,000+ in a 10 day bidding war on a well known auction site just to read this book in its original form. How long before our leaders deny us access to websites critical of this country and its foreign policy?

Like we said: if the timing were on TV, we'd call it heavy-handed. Actually, we still will.

Anyhow, this will probably be moot once Wikileaks spills the whole thing.


Publisher Destroys First Edition Of US Spy Memoir
[AFP]
Pentagon Destroys Thousands Of Copies Of Army Officer's Memoir [CNN]