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Secrecy and Censorship: Book Burning in the Era of E-Books

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The Pentagon's plan to buy up and destroy the entire first print run of Operation Dark Heart, a book written by a former DIA officer Anthony Schaffer, about covert cross border operations in north west Pakistan in 2003, is both alarming and comical, writes author Frederick Reuss; but it should not distract us from the secrecy and opacity of the Washington he portrays in his new novel, A Geography of Secrets.

It's an odd form of censorship being practiced by the Pentagon these days. That 10,000 copies of Schaffer's book are sitting in a warehouse in Virginia awaiting incineration seems almost quaint. Book burning, that ancient and venerable practice of repressive and secrecy-obsessed states dating back long before the invention of movable type, seems a little absurd in the era of the Kindle, Nook and iBook -- not to mention Google Books.

One would think the Pentagon, with all its high tech sophistication, would have noticed that information warfare has expanded beyond the ink and paper battlefield. Surely what they need is some sort of worm or viral Trojan horse that burrows deep to corrupt files and software without leaving a signature? Or a deal with Google preventing digital copying or an algorithm that chokes on certain search requests?

There is also what might be termed the instant bestseller effect, strictly a literary phenomenon, wherein a work that might not otherwise attract a wide readership becomes an overnight sensation by virtue of a controversy surrounding it. There is an entire industry devoted to exploiting these valuable commercial opportunities. They don't come along often; and when they do, the shock and awe reverberates through the media like nothing a publisher could ever concoct for a book in advance. A pure gift.

But sadly this episode does not signify that censorship in the era of the national security state is becoming less effective or extensive. On the contrary, the culture of secrecy is rapidly becoming the most distinguishing feature of the government of the United States. In July, the Washington Post published a series of articles called "Top Secret America", a silhouette portrait of the national security state. It vindicated the nearly four years I spent writing A Geography of Secrets, a novel which explores the existential, private aspect of secrets and secret keeping.

The Post estimated that some 854,000 people hold top secret security clearances and that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies do top secret work on behalf of the state. These numbers are as alarming as the budgets involved. It is a $75 billion national enterprise -- not including the Defense Department budget, which spends about $35 billion (excluding war-related funding appropriated though emergency supplemental spending bills) on classified or "black" programs -- i.e., things we'll never know about.

The very nature and character of the state is being transformed by these burgeoning secret enterprises and the so-called "state-secrets privilege," which has just been given new strength by an appeals court decision on September 8 dismissing the claims of several persons who said they were illegally transported and tortured through a CIA "extraordinary rendition" program. They would not be permitted to litigate their case, the court decided, because to do so would place "state secrets" at risk.

The social and cultural ramifications of all this secrecy are no less important than the constitutional and political dimensions, and bear thinking about. What happens to a state that keeps so many secrets? Or to a society of secret keepers?

In my research for the novel, I interviewed intelligence workers at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and spoke informally with active duty and retired military officers. All were sincere and forthcoming, and not a little bemused to be talking to someone writing something as frivolous as a novel. Certain formalities were observed. Interviews were held in secure rooms behind cipher doors; no names were given or used; I was not allowed to quote -- minor inconveniences, but de rigueur in the intel world.

I was mainly curious about the conditions of their work, what it was like to do and know things that couldn't be spoken of. They all admitted it wasn't easy; that they were resigned to it and had developed strategies and ways of coping. One person I spoke with described a road trip he and a colleague took (just the two of them in a rented car) during which they unburdened themselves of things that had been pent up inside -- a "My Dinner with Andre" but with acronyms.

There are a whole lot of people living among us who bear a heavy burden that only secrets and secrecy can impose on a person -- not just in Washington, DC, but all around the country in any of over 10,000 locations. The cult of secrecy, mythologized during the Cold War era in action-figure secret agents, has given way, in the post 9/11 world, to a murkier and far more dangerous condition that doesn't lend itself to Hollywood action films so much as to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The psychological cost of secrets and secrecy is as steep and complex as the constitutional and legal framework that has been erected by the government to protect itself.

Which brings us back to Schaffer's book. That the state can succumb to the same psychoses afflicting those who work within it is no small irony, and a well-documented phenomenon as old as literature and written history itself.