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Anonymous authorship subverts democracy

The newsmaking book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror shows off a red, white and blue cover, representing an American flag slightly ragged at the edges.

At the bottom is the red portion, with the author's name in large type. Most authors carry two names, such as Richard Clarke, writer of an earlier, similar whistleblowing book titled Against All Enemies. Or three names, such as Joyce Carol Oates. The author of Imperial Hubris (Brassey's, 309 pages, $27.50) uses just one name on the dust jacket, however. That name is Anonymous.

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The inside back flap of the dust jacket says Anonymous "is a senior U.S. intelligence official with nearly two decades of experience in national security issues related to Afghanistan and South Asia." He is the author, previously, of Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. Inside the book, on the author identification page, another sentence explains that as in Through Our Enemies' Eyes, the name Anonymous is used "as the condition for securing his employer's permission to publish..."

That explanation is not nearly complete or good enough. Publication of such important books without the author's true name attached is unconscionable and counterproductive. Everybody involved -- federal government bureaucracies (in this instance, the Central Intelligence Agency), the publisher (Brassey's Inc., of Dulles, Va.), journalists writing about the revelations, policy analysts commenting on the book's message without seeking to reveal the identify of its author -- ought to be spanked for subverting democracy.

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Before I explain why, let me make sure the considerable substance of Imperial Hubris is not slighted, because the book is worth buying, then reading carefully. The author offers impressive factual, contextual and emotional information as debate continues about whether George W. Bush or John Kerry ought to be elected; wheth-er Congress needs to intervene more decisively in policymaking for locales such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel; whether the use of U.S. military force is being handled wisely; whether more women and men will die on U.S. soil in ways similar to and different from Sept. 11.

Anonymous explains why he believes the U.S. government and its citizenry must halt their dependence on Middle East oil supplies and the immoral government / religious nexus controlling those supplies; why bin Laden and other Islamic leaders should not be viewed primarily as criminal terrorists but rather as sincere (albeit violent) insurgents; why U.S. policymakers must employ military force more effectively or withdraw from the role of global police officer; and much more.

Anonymous bases his opinions partly on information classified as secret and therefore unavailable to most readers. (Everybody seems to agree that no classified information is revealed per se in the book, but how can somebody like Anonymous cleanse such eyes-only material from his mind after studying it for so many years?) Imperial Hubris is grounded in unclassified information as a condition of publication. Unclassified information, when stitched together wisely, can reveal much. That leads Anonymous to comment, "Given that these easy-to-reach conclusions [his own] can be drawn from materials found in the public library and on the Internet, Americans should wonder why their political, intelligence, military and media leaders have not made them."

Anonymous possesses the courage to speak out in ways that other insiders have dodged. Somehow, he and his publisher substantially prevailed against the CIA censorship culture to bring Imperial Hubris to market. Hooray for all that.

Still, the ignorance among readers about the author's true identity is a serious problem. Without knowing his real name, his education (including knowledge of Arabic, if any), his professional experience (for example, desk work in Langley, Va., or first-hand observation in Baghdad), his workplace history (satisfied content analyst or oft-disciplined malcontent seeking to settle scores), his financial status (did he write such a strident book at this juncture partly because of family cash flow shortages?), motives are impossible to discern. (Brassey's accessible editor Christina Davidson said I could ask her about Anonymous' background. Fine. But what about tens of thousands of additional readers? Are they all supposed to call her? Would she continue to answer after, say, the tenth call?)

When a polemical book such as Imperial Hubris exists, motive undergirds everything. After all, at least some employees of the CIA know the identity of their colleague, even if most readers are unaware of that identity. Why would a government worker risk calumny or worse (in addition to some praise, I would hope) by taking Imperial Hubris to an outside publisher for distribution to reviewers and bookstores? The author and the publisher blame Anonymous' employer for the lack of identification. I have no reason to doubt that the CIA insisted the author remain unnamed. But what does that insistence have to do with national security? The information is in the public domain now. If the author believes he can reveal himself without compromising his personal safety, why not let him? With the CIA dug in, why did Brassey's go along? What would have happened if Brassey's, with the author's concurrence, had placed a real name on the cover? Prosecution by the federal government? While possible, that seems unlikely. On what grounds could federal prosecutors have prevailed? If they did prevail, they would suffer an unwanted result along the way -- lots of additional attention given to a book that advertises incompetence, cowardice and political chicanery within intelligence agencies, the White House and Congress.

Previous outspoken employees of U.S. intelligence agencies faced difficulties from the censors, to be sure -- think Frank Snepp, Philip Agee, Victor Marchetti -- but they and their publishers never resorted to disseminating books without real names on the author's line.

Why did so many journalists write news accounts and reviews about Imperial Hubris without publishing the author's name? He certainly provides enough clues that a persistent investigator (see, for instance, the first paragraph of page 48) could have pieced together the puzzle. In fact, that is what happened: The staff of the Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, revealed the author as Michael Scheuer, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., a Republican, a first-generation college graduate, holder of a doctorate in British imperial history from the University of Manitoba, a CIA recruit based on a newspaper advertisement.

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What is lost in all the discussion about the book's content and the author's identity is a simple premise: The author is a federal government employee. One way or another, his salary comes from taxpayers. Scheuer, his CIA superiors and censors, President George W. Bush -- all of them are supposed to act as civil servants. They do not own the moral right to keep secrets from the taxpayers, from the electorate. The vague concept of national security should not trump openness. Many of the censors presumably considered themselves soldiers in the Cold War, which, among other goals, sought to dismantle authoritarian, secretive regimes in nations regarded as intellectually and morally unhealthy.

The United States of America is supposed to operate on democratic principles, which include free flow of information and transparency. We, the people, are their masters. They are employed, as the term "civil servant" suggests, only because of our permission.

Steve Weinberg is a book author, reviewer and magazine feature writer. From 1983-1990, he served as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, an international organization of journalists based at the University of Missouri. In that role, plus before and since, Weinberg has fought government secrecy as a user of the federal Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws.


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