Screen shot from “Kill the Messenger” documentary on FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (photo: Kill the Messenger)

(update below)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been trying to prevent former FBI employee and whistleblower Sibel Edmonds from publishing a book she submitted for prepublication review nearly one year ago, the National Whistleblower Center reports.

Edmonds submitted a manuscript of her book, Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story, on April 26, 2011, because under an employee agreement she signed, this was required. In turn, the FBI had 30 days to review and approve the submission. Three hundred and forty-three days later, Edmonds says the book is being held “hostage.”

The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) has some idea on what is taking so long. They published a document that employees like Edmonds were required to sign, which they consider to be an “illegal” contract because it asserts the FBI has the authority to censor material if it might pose an issue for “public policy.”

From the agreement Edmonds signed:

…I understand that this agreement is not intended to apply to information which has been placed in the public domain or to prevent me from writing or speaking about the FBI, but it is intended to prevent disclosure of information where disclosure would be contrary to the law, regulation or public policy. I agree the Director of the FBI is in a better position than I to make that determination… [emphasis added]

On the Whistleblower Radio Hour, a lawyer for Edmonds, NWC executive director and the show’s host, Steve Kohn, pointed out that numerous courts have held prepublication review can only be used to protect secret or classified information. He said the FBI is illegitimately forcing employees and contractors to sign an agreement that would allow the FBI director to censor material to “cover up mistakes” or “embarrassing information.” And Edmonds, who was on the podcast as a guest, said this practice made her think of third world monarchies or dictatorships.

Edmonds is a Turkish-American, who was hired as a FBI translator shortly after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), she reported “shoddy work and security breaches to her supervisors that could have prevented” the attacks and was fired in March 2002. She contested her firing in July 2002. Then, on July 6, 2004, a judge dismissed her case because the government invoked the “state secrets privilege.”

The FBI’s suppression of Edmonds’ book is not limited to invoking her employee agreement. It goes beyond that and includes reading her book for other purposes besides the removal of any secret or classified information.

In a letter to Kohn dated February 7, 2012, the Bureau informs:

The FBI is continuing its review of the manuscript to our office on April 26, 2011, and the manuscript received in our office on November 30, 2011. We disagree with your contention that there has been a constructive denial of your request for review. We also do not concur that 28 CFR ~ 17.18 provides for an appeal prior to completion of agency review of a manuscript. The matters Ms. Edmonds writes about involve many equities, some of which may implicate information that is classified. The FBI is reviewing her submissions as expeditiously as possible. Ms. Edmonds, however, may not publish either manuscript until the FBI makes a final determination and she is authorized to do so… [emphasis added]

As Kohn said during his interview with Edmonds, they shouldn’t be reading the book and addressing issues involving “many equities.” Additionally, the dates show Edmonds has submitted her book twice — once in April 2011 and once in November 2011. In both cases, the FBI has had way more than 30 days to approve the book.

What Edmonds has experienced is just another facet of the government war on whistleblowing, which the Obama Administration has escalated significantly. In August 2011, the New York Times‘ Scott Shane reported the CIA demanded “extensive cuts” to former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan’s memoir. They aimed to suppress information on how the CIA missed an opportunity to prevent 9/11 when the agency withheld from the FBI information on two of the future hijackers that were currently living in San Diego. They aimed to suppress information on the CIA’s brutal treatment of terror suspects during interrogations. The material had been disclosed “in open Congressional hearings, the report of the national commission on 9/11 and even [in] the 2007 memoir of George J. Tenet, the former CIA director.” But, according to Soufan, the CIA wanted to make cuts to “prevent him from recounting episodes” that reflected badly on the agency.

Another example of the government using prepublication review to suppress embarrassing information is the case of former CIA officer Kevin M. Shipp. The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage reported in February 2011 that Shipp moved to publish a memoir on Camp Stanley, “an Army weapons depot just north of San Antonio where the drinking water was polluted with toxic chemicals.” It covered a lawsuit he had filed against the CIA which charged they had placed his family in a “mold-contaminated home that made them sick and required nearly all their possessions to be destroyed.” The CIA invoked the “state secrets privilege” and convinced the judge to “seal the case and order the family and their lawyers not to discuss it and to later dismiss the lawsuit without hearing.” When he looked at the submitted manuscript of his memoir, which had been reviewed, it had “blacked out swaths of information, like accounts of his children’s nosebleeds, strange rashes, vomiting, severe asthma and memory loss.”

Then, of course, there was the CIA’s refusal in 2007 to let Valerie Plame publish her memoir, which included details on how long she had worked for the agency, even though information had been in an “unclassified letter to Ms. Wilson” that was published in the Congressional Record. And, in March 2006, the CIA deleted sections of a CIA officer TJ Waters’ memoir after initially approving it, a move that he considered a violation of his First Amendment rights.

One might think Edmonds could just go ahead and publish the book. After all, she did wait the 30 days. Two prior cases suggest that Edmonds is better off waiting.

In June 2011, the CIA won a ruling in a federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia after it charged that ”Ishmael Jones,” a CIA officer, had “breached his secrecy agreement” when he went ahead and published his book, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture. The CIA’s Prepublication Review Board had refused to clear the book for publication. Still, the judge found he was wrong to publish the book and cited the case of former CIA officer Frank Snepp, who published a Vietnam War memoir, Decent Interval, despite CIA objections. The judge added he could have come to the US District Court to “determine if the agency’s withholding of permission was unreasonable.”

On September 10, 2010, the New York Times reported the Pentagon was going to buy the “entire first printing – 10,000 copies – of a memoir by a controversial former Defense Intelligence Agency officers so that the book” could be destroyed. The book, Operation Dark Heart, was by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and told of his “adventures and frustrations” in the war in Afghanistan. It included details on covert operations that were shut down by military officials who did not want to offend Pakistan.

Edmonds might argue much of the content can be published because it is in the Congressional Record, but, in May 2004, the Justice Department had her briefings and FBI briefings “retroactively classified” and forced members of Congress to remove documents they had posted on their websites.

And think of what this use of prepublication does to former government employees’ books. Edmonds already submitted a second manuscript. Presumably, without having any specific idea what was troubling the FBI, she removed the sections that she immediately thought were causing problems. She engaged in self-censorship to expedite the approval of her book. It is like she already did this when she first submitted the book for approval too, because the reason she wrote the book was to have it read by the public, and unless the FBI approves of the book no US citizen will get to read a page of her book.

Why even bother enduring all this? The use of prepublication review as a tool of suppression could be cited as part of the case for WikiLeaks. Former government employees might as well consider releasing a manuscript to a media organization that publishes leaks to send a message to government agencies that their overbroad use of prepublication review boards is unacceptable.

A foremost case involving prepublication, New York Times v. United States—the lawsuit the government brought to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg—resulted in a decision that concluded, “Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic, perpetuating bureaucratic errors. Open debate and discussion of public issues are vital to our national health. On public questions there should be ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate.” It also proclaimed, “The dominant purpose of the First Amendment was to prohibit the widespread practice of governmental suppression of embarrassing information.”

Evermore, government functions under the notion that it has supreme authority to prevent former government employees from fostering debate through the sharing of information on what they experienced while serving in government. If agencies like the FBI aren’t suppressing the publication of a book, they are waging a war on individuals who shared their story with journalists and chilling not only freedom of speech but also freedom of the press in America.

This policy of censorship makes the following clear to any former government employee: if you want to talk about your prior work, make certain to not speak ill of current government policies, especially ones that involve national security matters. Consider going on the offensive to defend a policy that might be in question currently. Not only will you get praise for the work you did, but you will also ensure the government won’t attempt to silence you. However, if you dare to speak critically of US government policy, expect to be targeted and suppressed.

Update

There are two other whistleblowers who have been targeted for writing books that should have been mentioned – former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who was recently indicted under the Espionage Act, and Peter Van Buren, a State Department employee who the government is currently in the process of terminating.

As Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountabilit Project describes in her post on Van Buren at Salon today, it is Van Buren’s book on the State Department’s Iraq reconstruction project that has pushed the department to go after him:

Van Buren is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department who wrote a book critical of U.S. reconstruction projects in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011). He also maintains a personal blog at www.wemeantwell.com. A 23-year veteran of the State Department, Mr. Van Buren began to experience a series of adverse personnel actions a month before the publication of his book, which are ongoing today. These actions include suspension of his security clearance, confiscation of his Diplomatic Passport, being placed on administrative leave, being banned from the State Department building, losing access to his State Department computer, and being reassigned to a makeshift telework position better suited for a high schooler.

The State Department cleared Mr. Van Buren’s book by default because State exceeded its own 30-day deadline by nearly a year. Now the State Department is retaliating against him viciously for his book by taking adverse personnel actions — ostensibly based on not seeking pre-publication review for his blogs and live media appearances, done on his personal time — which are being used as a pretext to punish him for his book.

Even more disturbingly, the State Department admits that it is actively monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s blogs, Tweets and Facebook updates that he posts during his private time on his personal home computer. [emphasis not added]

As for Kiriakou, the FBI claims he lied to the Publications Review Board of the CIA and tried to trick the agency into “allowing him to include classified information” in his book. They’ve tacked on a charge to get him for allegedly trying to do this, even though he didn’t succeed. This is all part of the effort to intimidate Kiriakou. Like Radack declares in a post on the indictment, “What the government really seems to be angry about is that Kiriakou’s book sharply criticized the CIA’s torture program and revealed embarrassing information about the FBI – namely that the FBI shelved potentially actionable intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11.”

Kevin Gosztola is the co-author of the new book, “Truth and Consequences: The US vs. Bradley Manning.” He will be doing an FDL Book Salon on April 28 on the recently published book.