Operation Dark Heart joins the censorship “Hall of Futility”

In a novel approach to censorship, the US Department of Defense [DOD] recently bought up the entire 10,000-copy first run of Operation Dark Heart, a memoir that it doesn’t want us to read. DOD says that the book, written by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, reveals classified information about US operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that threatens national security. This action may mark the first time in history that a government has used purchasing power to take a controversial book out of circulation.

The buyout actually works to the financial benefit of the author, who might not otherwise have sold out his first printing. The second edition—replete with blacked-out text—may also sell more briskly than otherwise expected.  The tactic also has inspired a bit of humor. On a recent edition of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” news quiz, panelists joked about similar ways to enhance sales of other books, such as: Where the Wild Things (and our Troops) Are, and Eat, Pray, Love, Reveal Nuclear Codes.

Operation Dark Heart: Censored

In a nod to more traditional book-banning tactics, DOD is reported to have destroyed the books after buying them [for a reported $47,000]. [No word, yet, as to whether they were destroyed the old-fashioned way—by burning—or whether book-broiling has morphed into a more 21st century format—shredding and recycling.]

Either way, this episode is not the first time a work of non-fiction has been outlawed or censored for national-security reasons—with or without justification. And there’s no reason to think it will be the last. Here are a few other examples:

United States Vietnam Relations, 1945-67

You probably know this publication as “The Pentagon Papers.” Smuggled out of the US State Department in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg and others, and leaked to the New York Times, it was more report than book. But its 3,000 pages contained information that embarrassed the US military, the State Department and many others who formulated and executed American policy in Southeast Asia after World War II. Outed for the web of lies its top officials had promulgated about US military policy and activities, the Pentagon attempted to prevent publication and charged Ellsberg with near-treasonous acts. The effort became futile when Ellsberg outflanked the military censors, by getting several other national newspapers to publish excerpts, and when the US Supreme Court struck down the government’s attempt to block publication. Supreme Court, 1: US government censorship, 0.

The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence

The CIA really, really didn’t like this 1974 book by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks. The spy agency claimed that Marchetti—a former employee—had violated his contract, which said that he couldn’t write about the CIA without its approval. According to Wikipedia:

The authors claim to expose how the CIA actually works and how its original purpose (i.e. collecting and analyzing information about foreign governments, corporations, and persons in order to advise public policymakers) had been subverted by its obsession with clandestine operations.

It is the first book the federal government of the United States ever went to court to censor before its publication. Civil-liberties groups opposed the government’s attempt at censorship, questioning whether a citizen can sign away his First Amendment rights.

The CIA demanded the authors remove 399 passages but they stood firm and only 168 passages were censored. The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, chose to publish the book with blanks for censored passages and with boldface type for passages that were challenged but later uncensored.The book was a critically-acclaimed bestseller whose publication contributed to the establishment of the Church Committee, a United States Senate select committee to study governmental operations with respect to intelligence activities, in 1975.


All you have to know to understand why British muckety-mucks hated this book its subtitle: “The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer.”  Written in 1985 by Peter Wright, who worked as a British intelligence agent for 21 years, the book reveals the activities of MI5, Great Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence agency. Wright’s tell-all infuriated British cloak-and-dagger higher-ups, not just because it violated the code of secrecy, but also because it exposed many embarrassing instances of ineptitude in the agency in the 1960s.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government took its objections to court—both in Great Britain and in Australia. Although the British government won some legal battles, it eventually lost the war. Spycatcher was published in the US in 1987, and several British newspapers brazenly flouted an injunction, publishing excerpts and a serialization of the book. The world did not end.

Special Forces Hunter at War

In 2009, Denmark was all a-buzz over Thomas Rathsack’s upcoming expose of his life as a Danish Special Forces commando in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Danish Ministry of Defense not only wanted to ban it, it demanded that the publisher supply a list of people to whom it had sent advance copies, and it warned  newspapers against publishing it. The government said that Rathsack had revealed too many details on the commandos’ methods of operation and [the information] could prove useful to Denmark’s enemies.” [Denmark has enemies? Who knew?]

Unfortunately for the Danish government, on the day before the book’s scheduled publication, an influential Danish newspaper published extracts from the book—and its morning edition sold out. In an editorial accompanying the excerpts, the editors said, “Members of the public have a right to follow the news—even when we are at war, and even when the authorities think they should be kept in the dark.”

A database of censored books—courtesy of our friends in Norway!

Want to know more about censored books? Check out Beacon for Freedom, an extensive, searchable database of censored books. Located in Norway, Beacon for Freedom has its roots in a group called NFFE, which “was established in Spring of 1995 as an independent centre of documentation and information committed to defend freedom of expression world-wide.” Now operating under new management, the website lists 657 censored books from a wide variety of countries.

“The struggle for freedom of expression is as ancient as the history of censorship,” says the site. “…The database, containing bibliographical information on the writings of free thinking men and women that were banned through history, will serve as a tribute to the memory of the countless victims of censorship – past and present. In recognition that knowledge of the past is essential to understanding the present, today’s conditions for freedom of expression should be viewed in a broader context and time perspective; that of the world history of censorship.”

Image credit: Larry West, deviantart.com