Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta clashed with the agency over the contents of his recently published memoir and allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA, according to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project.
Panetta’s decision appears to have put him in violation of the secrecy agreement that all CIA employees are required to sign and came amid a showdown with agency reviewers that could have derailed the release of the book, people involved in the matter said.
The memoir — almost unfailingly complimentary toward the spy service, which he led from 2009 to 2011 — was ultimately approved by the CIA’s Publications Review Board before it reached store shelves this month.
But preempting that panel, even temporarily, carried legal risks for Panetta and his publisher. Other former CIA employees have been sued for breach of contract and forced to surrender proceeds from sales of books that ran afoul of CIA rules.
Neither Panetta nor the agency would comment on the dispute over the book, “Worthy Fights.” A spokeswoman for the publisher, Penguin Press, would say only that Panetta’s book “was submitted earlier this year to both the Department of Defense and CIA for the requisite reviews. Secretary Panetta worked closely with both to ensure that ‘Worthy Fights’ was accurate and appropriate for publication.”
But others involved in the process said Panetta became so frustrated with CIA delays and demands for redactions that he appealed to CIA Director John Brennan and threatened to proceed with publication without clearance from the agency.
“It was contentious,” a former U.S. official said, and exceeded the acrimony that has come up in previous conflicts between senior CIA officials eager to capitalize on the demand for books about their careers and a panel that exerts extensive control over how much they can tell.
The CIA’s dispute with its former director, and its apparent decision not to pursue the potential violation, could complicate the agency’s ability to negotiate with other would-be authors and avoid accusations of favoritism.
“If he doesn’t follow the specific protocols, then why should there be any expectation for anybody underneath him to do so?” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who has handled more than a dozen cases involving authors and the CIA’s review board.
The Obama administration has come down aggressively on others accused of failing to comply with their secrecy agreements, including the former Navy SEAL who bypassed the CIA and Pentagon in publishing his account of his involvement in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
As defense secretary, Panetta publicly scolded ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette. The Pentagon sued Bissonnette to recover the proceeds from the book, and that legal fight remains unresolved two years later.
The CIA also has a long history of zealously enforcing its secrecy agreements, including against its highest officials. Former director William E. Colby was forced to pay $10,000 in a 1981 legal settlement after a version of his memoir was published in France without agency approval.
More recently, a federal judge ruled in the CIA’s favor against a former officer who, under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, had submitted a book that was harshly critical of the agency. Jones published the book without permission after large portions of his manuscript were rejected.
At the time, Panetta issued a news release saying that “CIA officers are duty-bound to observe the terms of their secrecy agreement with the agency.”
That agreement requires current or former employees to submit any agency-related material that they “contemplate disclosing publicly.” Authors are prohibited from showing their work “to anyone who is not authorized to have access” until they have secured “written permission to do so.”
The language is interpreted to mean barring the sharing of drafts even with a co-author or editor, prompting other senior CIA officials, including former director George J. Tenet and former acting general counsel John Rizzo, to wait to deliver their manuscripts to their publishers until they had received explicit permission from the review board.
“The rules are quite clear, and I followed them,” Rizzo said.
Panetta was reportedly paid $3 million for his book, and it was promoted as a title for the fall book season. It was released Oct. 7.
One person with inside knowledge said that “Worthy Fights” went to press in August while disputes with the CIA remained unresolved. The final approval from the review board came on or around Sept. 1, according to that person and others familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A review copy provided to The Washington Post bears date stamps of Aug. 11 on each page, as well as markings indicating that it had gone through three copy-editing cycles by that point. That bound copy was delivered to The Post on Sept. 12.
Sarah Hutson, a spokeswoman for Penguin Press, declined to answer questions about when printing and distribution of the Panetta book began. Panetta’s negotiations with the CIA were handled by his former chief of staff at the agency and the Pentagon, Jeremy Bash, who also declined to answer questions about the publication and review schedule.
To some, the conflict over the Panetta book was predictable, pitting a voluble former director against a small CIA office whose demands on authors are seen by many who have endured the process as arbitrary and at times unfair.
The board, which also scrutinizes speeches and movie scripts, is supposed to screen submissions solely for disclosures of classified material. Opinions, such as Panetta’s criticism of President Obama, are not part of its purview.
The panel bans references to CIA operations, including drone strikes, even when they have been mentioned by the president and documented extensively in the news media. It routinely objects to the use of seemingly innocuous terms such as “station chief,” arguing that the mere mention of the word “station” would confirm that the agency has permanent bases overseas.
As director, Panetta often tested the boundaries of such secrecy. His public comments about the drone campaign — including his description of airstrikes on al-Qaeda as “the only game in town” — were so extensive that the American Civil Liberties Union cited them extensively in a lawsuit that argued the program could no longer be considered a government secret.
Panetta also called attention to secret CIA operations in other ways, giving access to the makers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which dramatized the agency’s hunt for bin Laden.
In his book, Panetta “was pushing to be more explicit than the agency likes to get,” said a former U.S. official familiar with the negotiations. He was also “bumping up against the traditional things which [the review board] does that are stupid,” including refusing to acknowledge the “world’s worst-kept secret about drone usage.”
Panetta appealed many of the board’s decisions to the CIA’s executive director, Meroe Park, who as the agency’s No. 3 official oversees the review panel and has authority to overrule it.
Former officials said that nearly every senior CIA officer who has submitted a book to the board since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has appealed the panel’s rulings, including Panetta’s deputy, Michael Morell, whose memoir was also cleared in September but has yet to be published.
Judging by the CIA chapters in the published version of Panetta’s book, the review board appears to have prevailed. CIA drone strikes and other operations are described only obliquely. Even signature moments of his tenure that were covered extensively in the press are obscured.
His decision to approve a 2009 strike that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud — as well as his wife — is recounted only elliptically, with no reference to Panetta’s power to approve a strike and no mention of Mehsud by name.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette as Mark. This version has been corrected.