WASHINGTON -- In an illustration of the government's changeable ideas of what should be secret, Pentagon censors have decided that nearly half of more than 400 passages deleted from an Afghan war memoir can be printed without damaging national security.
The decision last week by a Defense Department security office is the latest twist in the striking fate of the 2010 book, "Operation Dark Heart," by Anthony Shaffer, a retired Army officer who described his work as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. The Army initially cleared the book for publication, but then the Defense Intelligence Agency objected, asserting that the manuscript contained classified information.
So the Pentagon spent nearly $50,000 to buy and destroy the entire 10,000-copy first printing of the book, before allowing a second printing with 433 passages blacked out. Mr. Shaffer later filed a lawsuit challenging the deletions.
The new review by the Defense Department concluded that 198 of the supposed secrets were now "properly declassified" and could be printed after all.
In a further complication to the "Operation Dark Heart" case, a small number of review copies of the original uncensored edition had been distributed before the Pentagon bought the 10,000 copies. By examining the unexpurgated copies, it is possible to find out what security officials thought was dangerous, and what they now have decided is safe to print.
For instance, the name of Bagram Air Base, a hub of American operations in Afghanistan, was removed from the first edition, but the censors now say it can be restored. But a reference to the nickname of the National Security Agency, "the Fort" – a name well known for decades to neighbors of the agency at Fort Meade, Md. – remains classified.
Mr. Shaffer, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2011, said the restored passages may be used in a new Turkish-language edition of the book. But he noted that the Defense Department had decided that the official description of activities that won him a Bronze Star -- in a document not initially marked as classified and already released at a public Congressional hearing -- was now classified and could not be publicly discussed.
"They continue to trample on my First Amendment rights," he said.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who published the new Defense Department letter on his blog Secrecy News on Thursday, said the government's revision "illustrates the thoroughly subjective character of the classification system."
"To inquire into the logic of the process is to go down a bottomless rabbit hole," he said.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.