[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Spencer Ackerman, Host:
Those familiar with Tony Shaffer generally know two things about him. The second is that we can’t really read his book.
When people who’ve worked in sensitive intelligence positions want to write their memoirs, they typically submit their manuscripts to their parent agency; there’s a back-and-forth about what can be revealed; it’s resolved; and the book goes to the printer. For Shaffer, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer — and someone in the rare position of being both an operations guy and an analyst — something different happened. The Pentagon bought the entire 10,000-copy first printing of Shaffer’s memoir, Operation Dark Heart, and destroyed it.
And not even for the reason you’d expect.
The first thing we know about Shaffer is that he was involved in a still-murky project in 2000, under the auspices of the U.S. Special Operations Command, called Able Danger. Able Danger was an early data-mining program designed to ferret out connections people had with a then-largely-unknown terrorist network called al-Qaeda. In his memoir, Shaffer describes its “highly advanced algorithms” as “Google on steroids.” Shaffer maintains Able Danger identified Mohamed Atta as an individual in the U.S. with ties to al-Qaeda well in advance of the 9/11 attack. But Able Danger was taken shut down by SOCOM lawyers, who feared mining information on U.S. persons put the program on the wrong side of the law.
“It was not a ‘failure of imagination’ that resulted in the 9/11 attacks,” Shaffer writes. “It was pure bureaucratic bumbling and intellectual corruption.” In 2006, he testified before Congress about Able Danger claiming a cover-up that continued up till that moment: the Defense Intelligence Agency for whom he worked, Shaffer said, spent “what we now estimate $2 million in an effort to discredit and malign me by creating false allegations, and using these false allegations to justify revocation of my Top Secret security clearance.”
The thing is, you can read about Able Danger in Shaffer’s book. With the exception of a few black-bar redactions blocking out some text, Able Danger is on display. Turn the page after the Able-Danger chapter, and most everything is hidden. And that’s the real shocker.
Operation Dark Heart is the story of how the Afghanistan war languished and deteriorated in the mid-2000s while the Bush administration persuaded itself and the country that it was all but won. In particular, it describes the dawning realization of military intelligence officers like Shaffer that al-Qaeda had reconstituted itself in Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani intelligence, leveraging that new lease on life to aid a burgeoning Taliban insurgency. Shaffer describes going to higher headquarters with a simple solution: go into Pakistan and attack. The answer: No.
I’m not here to adjudicate the wisdom of that approach or any other — largely because I found reading about it, from the perspective of someone who experienced the frustrations of fighting a neglected war, so fascinating. Even the seemingly successful operations go pear-shaped, often due to bureaucratic miscommunication. Hanging over the entire story is the broad strategic confusion around it: Special Operations Forces, intelligence operatives and minimal numbers of regular U.S. troops are asked to find bin Laden, eradicate al-Qaeda and magically fix Afghanistan, with few resources and pretty much no one watching them. Why wouldn’t you think you should just rush into Pakistan and be done with it?
Or at least that’s where my mind wandered while reading Shaffer’s book, because so much of its discussion of Afghanistan operations is redacted, the compromise that his publisher reached with the Defense Department. It’s a striking meta-narrative, highlighting precisely what the Pentagon wanted concealed: a long and unlamented history of compounded mistakes in Afghanistan. And today we’ve got the author, who lived through it, to talk with us about what Afghanistan was like when no one was paying attention — and what to do about it now. This time, no one’s going to censor him.