WASHINGTON – Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta clashed with the agency over the contents of his recently published memoir and allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA, according to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project.
Panetta’s decision appears to have put him in violation of the secrecy agreement that all CIA employees are required to sign, and came amid a showdown with agency reviewers that could have derailed the release of the book this month, people involved in the matter said.
The memoir, which is almost unfailingly complimentary toward the spy service where he served as director from 2009 to 2011, was ultimately approved by the CIA’s Publications Review Board before it reached store shelves.
But pre-empting that panel – even temporarily – carried legal risks for both Panetta and his publisher. Other former CIA employees have been sued for breach of contract and forced to surrender proceeds from sales of books that ran afoul of CIA rules.
Neither Panetta nor the agency would comment on the dispute over the book, “Worthy Fights.” A spokeswoman for the publisher, Penguin Press, would say only that Panetta’s book “was submitted earlier this year to both the Department of Defense and CIA for the requisite reviews. Secretary Panetta worked closely with both to ensure that ‘Worthy Fights’ was accurate and appropriate for publication.”
But others involved in the process said that Panetta became so frustrated with CIA delays and demands for redactions that he appealed to CIA Director John Brennan and threatened to proceed with publication without clearance from the agency.
“It was contentious,” a former U.S. official said, exceeding the acrimony that has come up in previous conflicts with senior CIA officials eager to capitalize on the demand for books about their careers and a panel that exerts extensive control over how much they can tell.
The CIA’s dispute with its former director, and its apparent decision not to pursue the potential violation, could complicate the agency’s ability to negotiate with other would-be authors and avoid accusations of favoritism.
“If he doesn’t follow the specific protocols, then why should there be any expectation for anybody underneath him to do so?” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who has handled more than a dozen cases involving authors and the CIA’s review board.
The Obama administration has come down aggressively on others accused of failing to comply with their secrecy agreements – including the former Navy SEAL who bypassed the CIA and Pentagon in publishing his account of his involvement in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
As secretary of defense, Panetta publicly scolded ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who was sued by the Pentagon to recover the proceeds from the book. That legal fight remains unresolved two years later.
The CIA also has a long history of zealously enforcing its secrecy agreements, including against its highest officials. Former director William E. Colby was forced to pay $10,000 in a 1981 legal settlement after a version of his memoir was published in France without agency approval.
More recently, a federal judge ruled in the CIA’s favor against a former officer who had submitted a book under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones that was harshly critical of the agency. Jones published the book without permission after large portions of his manuscript were rejected.
At the time, Panetta issued a news release saying “CIA officers are duty-bound to observe the terms of their secrecy agreement with the agency.”
That agreement requires current or former employees to submit any agency-related material that they “contemplate disclosing publicly.” Authors are prohibited from even showing their work “to anyone who is not authorized to have access” until they have secured “written permission to do so.”
The language is interpreted to mean barring the sharing of drafts even with a co-author or editor, prompting other senior CIA officials, including former director George Tenet and former acting general counsel John Rizzo, to wait to deliver their manuscripts to their publishers until they had received explicit permission from the review board.
“The rules are quite clear, and I followed them,” Rizzo said.
Panetta was reportedly paid $3 million for his book, and it was promoted as a title for the fall book season. It was released Oct. 7.