Nada Bakos is a former CIA analyst whose book “The Targeter: My Life in the CIA on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS” is scheduled for publication in June. John Nixon is a former CIA analyst whose book “Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein” is scheduled for publication this month. This column was reviewed by the CIA’s Publications Review Board.
We are former senior CIA analysts who, in our combined 23 years of service, have been privy to secrets that would amaze you. You will never hear them from us. We also have learned other critical, but unclassified, information about dealing with terrorists and dictators that we want to share — but the government has thrown needless roadblocks in our path.
CIA employees pledge that for the rest of their lives they will submit their writings to the agency in advance of publication to ensure that nothing appropriately classified is inadvertently revealed. We fully support this. But we are both paying a price well beyond the spirit of our agreement. Each of us has written a nonfiction book that has been ensnared in red tape by the CIA — for 11 months (for John Nixon) and 14 months and counting (for Nada Bakos). The courts have held that this signed agreement is a lifetime enforceable contract, provided that the review is limited to the deletion of classified information and that a response is given to the author within 30 days of submission. (The 30-day time constraint was set forth by the 1972 circuit court decision in U.S. v Marchetti.)
Books such as ours can help foster a climate of accountability that is an essential element in any democracy. But the system of review is broken. Our experience is sadly typical. Even agency alumni who write novels and short stories are told to expect a year or more to pass before they hear back. It is not just the little guy, either. In 2014, former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta became so frustrated with the overzealous review process that he sent his memoir to his publisher before receiving clearance. Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer and CNN contributor, was mulling running for Congress and was told point-blank by the agency Publications Review Board that it would have to review all of his campaign statements, making it nearly impossible for him to run.
Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general who served as director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, told us: “It’s important for the American intelligence community to get the accurate word out on what it is they do. And there is no better way to do that than to allow professionals to speak in their own words. In short, if the agency needs to commit more resources to the Publications Review Board process, it should do so. It owes that to the American people and to the officers who want a fair chance to tell their story.”
When authors do hear back, too often ridiculous edits are demanded. After a lengthy wait, one CIA veteran was forced to make major alterations to his novel about vampires. Vampires! Another was directed not to reveal the gender of an unidentified officer who led a successful operation. Correctly calling him “he” would have narrowed a search for the officer to half the people on the planet.
Those submitting material for clearance are generally neither whistleblowers nor agency cheerleaders. They are simply offering their experience to contribute to the historical record and to help the public understand important national security issues. Without their voices, readers must rely on accounts from authors who lack the insights provided by a tenure in intelligence — or who have a political ax to grind. (Also, as a woman, Nada felt the need to write a national security book from a woman’s perspective.)
Why is the review process broken? We believe it’s because the handling of this material is given such a low priority and the resources devoted to it are so small. But we also suspect there has been an overreaction to incidents such as the Edward Snowden debacle.
The solutions aren’t rocket science. They include leveraging new technology to help review short articles or provide a cursory analysis of longer documents, as well as funding for more review board employees. Also needed are all-inclusive but flexible standards from the director of national intelligence, simple interagency agreements that restrict the time each has to respond to the submitting agency and realistic standards over what is considered classified or detrimental.
“We are a democracy,” former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once said. “We can only have as good a foreign policy as the public’s understanding of world affairs.” By needlessly delaying books such as ours, the CIA loses an opportunity to educate the public and policymakers alike about what intelligence can and cannot achieve. And U.S. taxpayers who fund the intelligence community lose the opportunity to know what their government is doing (and not doing) to protect them from threats abroad.