washingtonpost.com
Suing Over the CIA's Red Pen
Retired Operative Says Agency Unfairly Edited His Book

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

When Gary Berntsen sat down for dinner last year with the CIA's executive director, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the agency's No. 3 tried to talk him out of resigning from the National Clandestine Service. Foggo even offered him a university position as a placeholder until the CIA's new director, Porter J. Goss, could fix the broken personnel system and other issues that frustrated him, according to Berntsen.

But the Capital Grille meal quickly degenerated when Berntsen told Foggo that not only was he planning to resign but he intended to write a book about his experiences.

Foggo, according to Berntsen, stated flatly that Goss wanted no more books published by current or former CIA officials. Actually, according to a statement Berntsen filed last week in his ongoing lawsuit against the agency, Foggo's language was a little more colorful: "Mr. Foggo stated 'we will have no more books. I will redact the [expletive] out of your book so no one will want to read it.' "

Berntsen, who worked in the agency's operations and paramilitary branches for 23 years and led a CIA team in Afghanistan, responded that such a move would be illegal. Hundreds of former officers had written books, including some directors. One recent retiree, Gary Schroen, had even written several chapters about Berntsen, referring to him as "Gary 2."

"I just told him I'm preceding. I wasn't going to back down," Berntsen said in an interview last week. "It was very awkward."

Berntsen resigned, wrote his book and, as required, submitted "Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personnel Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander" to the CIA's Publications Review Board, which redacted about five pages of the 400-plus-page manuscript. "They were very efficient and thoughtful," he said last week.

Then the board sent it to the Directorate of Operations, where Berntsen had worked, as is the practice. There, Berntsen contends, "Mr. Foggo made good on his word" and 70 pages were blacked out.

Berntsen's lawsuit, filed earlier this year in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asserts that the CIA violated his First Amendment rights in redacting as much as it did.

His case rests, in part, on assertions that the information is virtually the same as information the PRB cleared for publication in a prior book by Schroen, or released upon the orders of then-director George J. Tenet to Washington Post reporters Steve Coll and Bob Woodward, whose separate books included sections on the CIA's work in Afghanistan.

Berntsen thinks the CIA's aim was to make his book "unreadable, so few would purchase it."

Foggo declined comment through his attorney.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said he could not comment on Berntsen's specific allegations. But in an e-mail response to questions, he said that "for former employees, the sole yardstick for pre-publication review has been -- and remains -- the simple requirement that their writings contain no classified information."

In papers filed in the court case, the CIA said Berntsen's unredacted draft "reveals intelligence sources, methods and activities, foreign government information, and information impacting U.S. foreign relations." The information "reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to national security" and none of the information in question "has been officially disclosed," which would give it a level of credibility beyond that written in nonfiction books by journalists.

The agency says the information is more detailed and covers a different period of time than information the agency released for Schroen's book.

Berntsen published his book, with the redactions, in late December 2005. The paperback editions are due out soon. If he wins back some of the redacted material, he plans to publish an updated edition. "I'm not walking away," he said. "You can't have your First Amendment rights stamped on."

Berntsen's complaints about the agency's publication review decisions are shared by a half-dozen former CIA employees who, in the past two years, have sued or publicly criticized the agency for withholding information they believed would not damage national security but would, perhaps, embarrass the CIA or the White House.

Some administration officials and others in the national security world think Tenet allowed former employees to publish deeply critical books -- such as Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror" -- in retaliation for the White House allowing the agency to take so much heat for the failed prewar judgments on Iraq and other missteps.

Asked for new CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden's policy on book publishing, Mansfield wrote: "Director Hayden has emphasized the importance of responding in a timely way to employees who write books. And while he is committed to protecting intelligence sources, methods, and other classified information, the director also believes in a reasonable, common-sense approach to pre-publication review."

Berntsen said his legal appeal is being hampered because the CIA, with the court's approval, has refused to allow his lawyer, Mark Zaid, who is cleared to read some classified information, to see the unredacted text to prepare his case. Instead, Berntsen has had to prepare his own appeal, a 70-page rebuttal that documents, line by line, the previous publication of the information the CIA wants to deny him.

While he waits for his case to be adjudicated, Berntsen has written a second book, this one a policy book on "counterterrorism and human intelligence operations." The PRB redacted "only 1 to 2 percent" of the text, he said.

The tables will soon turn on Tenet, who is writing his own book. He has asked for and received access to agency records, including classified documents, "to refresh his memory about events that occurred during his tenure," Mansfield said. He said Tenet's book will be subject to CIA review and that appropriate sections will also be given to the offices where the information originated.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company