Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why I'm Censored

"Congress shall make no law. . .abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

"Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done?

Damn'd art thou, Faustus, damn'd!"

A Pact With the Devil

When I signed up as a Foreign Service officer of the United States and again when I signed out twenty-three years later, I had to agree in writing to official censorship of anything I wrote prior to publication, and all public speaking before presentation. Thus, unlike the rest of the American population, I do not enjoy the full freedoms of expression covered in the Constitution. Alas, I made a faustian pact with Uncle Sam, who owns the creative part of my soul unto death. In return, he paid me to travel and live in exotic lands, gave me fancy titles, provided me with adventure and even romance sometimes, and made me privy to the innermost secrets of state. And he protects the latter zealously.

Where's G. Gordon Liddy When We Need Him?

Uncle Sam hates leaks. But like the enchanted broom in Disney's Fantasia, he scrambles from pillar to post trying to stem a veritable torrent of secrets, exposés, scandals and slips. And, like the sorcerer's apprentice, he finds it to be overwhelming and largely futile. Witness the case of Wikileaks. The worst offenders, ironically, are rarely the career lifers like myself, but rather those who direct the beast from within its belly: the political appointees who spin, smear and self-promote as a matter of course; those for whom the rules don't really apply, even when they're caught. And when they are, a sacrificial lamb is thrown to the wolves to protect the higher-ups: viz., Oliver North, Lewis Libby. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney outed CIA undercover officer Valerie Plame, yet never spent a minute in court to answer for their crimes.

In my time in the State Department, this kind of thing happened all the time at various levels. As I noted earlier with Cuba, the head White House honcho for Latin America had been spewing secrets to the media and to an uncleared senator. When I worked on Afghanistan, a political appointee at the NSC regularly leaked sensitive policy decisions before the SECRET stamp ink was dry. The Washington Post sometimes reported these revelations before the government rank and file was informed. And when working on a White House program that was so secret that we who worked in it had to agree to have our phone conversations monitored and to travel under aliases, leaks from inside the White House made us scramble to cover the potential damage.

Valerie Plame & Me

My book manuscripts must undergo government security review before I can even show them to a book agent or a publisher. Those I published before 2000 were cleared quickly and with little interference from the censors. The Bush-2 administration, however, tightened the process up greatly. It took almost six months to get clearance for my latest novel, "Tribe." Upon completion of the manuscript, I phoned State to ask to whom I should send it. In return, they faxed me a letter stating, "Everything you write will be considered classified until cleared by this office."

Four agencies of the Federal government needed to have a crack at it. A large intelligence agency had "problems" with it. Worse, so did a major law enforcement agency. The intel agency objected to my description of a well-known training facility. I emailed them links to a Wikipedia article on it as well as commercially produced overhead satellite photography of it; I added transcripts of books which have pages of detailed information on it. The intel agency held its ground and posed additional objections to other elements in my book. Then the law enforcement agency declared they had problems as well. But they refused to reveal what they were, opting instead to stonewall and leave me hanging. Eventually, I managed to negotiate mutually acceptable changes with everybody, but a valuable half-year had passed, leaving several literary agents wanting to see the manuscript cooling their heels.

My work-in-progress, a spy tale about Cuba, will keep a small army of green-eye-shaders busy most likely for another six months. Despite my cribbing of espionage tradecraft techniques from open sources, I'm sure my manuscript will drive the censors to apoplexy, dyspepsia, tachycardia and a host of other conditions based on Greek-derived medical terms. I confess that I do self-censor somewhat more than I have previously, careful to avoid too much detail about secret stuff. Nonetheless pushing the envelope, as well as the buttons of those in authority, has always been in my nature. A writer, after all, must be honest with himself.

To Uncle Sam, With Love

Here's a message from yours truly to Uncle Sam: I'm no danger to our national security. I play by the rules. I'm proud to have served my country loyally. I promise I'll take the real secrets I know to my grave -- and you can monitor my mortal remains for preternatural communications with unauthorized celestial beings, if you wish. Just let me write my books and get them published before the time comes for me to buy long-term care insurance. Please.

(See also More on Censorship: Don't Mess With "The Man" - Two Case Studies)

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