Have you ever wondered what the government looks for when it reviews book manuscripts written by former government officials? You’re not alone. Earlier this month, The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court seeking more transparency about the government's pre-publication book review processes.
“For decades, various U.S. agencies have required many current and former employees to submit works that discuss their government service for review prior to publication,” notes a release from the Knight Institute, alleging that the “details of these processes are not governed by any uniform executive branch policy," and instead are determined by "a patchwork of agency regulations and non-disclosure agreements, with disparate standards and requirements.”
Further, the suit claims the lack of publicly available information regarding pre-publication review policies raises serious questions about "the authors’ First Amendment right to speak," and "the public’s First Amendment right to receive important information about the government.”
The complaint, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, names a range of government agencies including the FBI, CIA, and the Department of Defense, seeking "records relating to the pre-publication review process," as well as any other records that would "enhance the public’s understanding of pre-publication review and its effect on the public’s knowledge of and insight into the activities of the government."
The suit comes as books by government officials hit the bestseller lists, including former FBI director James Comey, whose book, A Higher Loyalty which the Knight Institute's Ramya Krishnan blogged about last month.
While Krishnan observed that Comey's pre-publication review process did not delay publication of his book, and that “very little” text was apparently removed, the process does not always work so smoothly "for the thousands of other former employees and contractors who submit manuscripts to government agencies each year."
Krishnan points to the experience of Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, whose book The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS was delivered in 2015 for a planned 2016 publication by Little, Brown, only to be told after a two-year delay that she had to "revise or delete" substantial portions of her work. In a separate action, Bakos is now suing the CIA, and the book is now tentatively set for a February, 2019 publication.
"It is a remarkable and under-examined fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies require millions of former employees, contractors, and even interns to submit works for review prior to publication," Krishnan writes, adding that the "criteria for submission and review are vague and overbroad; censors’ decisions are arbitrary; and authors who receive an adverse determination lack effective recourse."
The suit also comes as the Knight Institute prevailed in court this week in another case that garnered international headlines, as a federal court ruled that President Donald Trump could not block twitter users for their political views. In her decision, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald suggested that Trump may have a right to mute users who irritate him, but that since the president uses Twitter as a public space, he cannot block users, as the First Amendment forbids the government from restricting “the right of an individual to speak freely [and] to advocate ideas" in a public forum.