By Matthew Cole
A CIA lawsuit threatens to turn a little-known two-year-old tell-all by a disgruntled former spy into a bestseller. Within hours of the lawsuit's filing Tuesday, "The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture," had rocketed up the Amazon rankings.
"The Human Factor," written by an ex-agent using the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, went largely unnoticed when it was first published in July 2008. But within hours of the lawsuit's filing Tuesday, the book had vaulted up the Amazon rankings.
In the book, "Jones" charges the CIA with waste, fraud and abuse as he details his career over two decades working under non-official cover, or NOC, mainly in Europe.
The CIA said in a statement that Jones was being sued for breaking his secrecy agreement and for not allowing the agency's publication review process to "run its course." The agency is seeking any money Jones received for the publication or sales of the book.
The suit, which does not allege that Jones revealed any classified information, raises questions about why the agency would bring a case two years after publication and where both sides agree no sensitive secrets were revealed.
A check Tuesday revealed the book ranked 143,379 on Amazon sales list, but within hours of the CIA's announcement of the lawsuit, the ranking shot up to 659. It had risen all the way to 24 by Wednesday morning.
"CIA officers are duty-bound to observe the terms of their secrecy agreement with the Agency," Director Leon Panetta said. "This lawsuit clearly reinforces that message."
"I think it's a simple case of going after a whistle-blower who is trying to expose government waste and fraud," said Jones in an email. Jones chose to publish the book using a false name, and changed the names of all covert employees mentioned in the book.
Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy said the lawsuit is a mistake, but an action the CIA had to make to maintain its authority over its employees.
"If you look at this from a strictly National security policy point of view," Aftergood said, "This is a bone-headed move. You'll make an obscure book by an unknown author into a national news story."
But Aftergood said the agency's real aim is internal discipline. "The government is not simply concerned about protecting secrets. It is also concerned about Jones' overt defiance of established security rules."
Operation Dark Heart
The CIA's action also echoes the recent censoring of a former Army intelligence officer who published a book about the war in Afghanistan. In that case, the Department of Defense purchased and destroyed 10,000 copies -- the entire first run -- before a new, redacted version was printed. The book, "Operation Dark Heart," by Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer, began selling briskly and is currently number seven on the New York Times bestseller list. Shaffer and his publisher, St. Martin's Press, credit the publicity stemming from the Pentagon's efforts to censor the book for the sales.
Jones' book details his 20-year career as an NOC, and describes a bloated organization plagued by fraud, waste and bureaucratic lethargy. But the book never reveals the countries Jones lived or worked in, or the names of other agents or co-workers.
A spokeswoman for the CIA said that despite the potential to boost sales for the book, the CIA had to take a stand against Jones. "There's principle involved here. Intelligence officers need to understand their solemn obligation to protect our nation's secrets. People can make judgments about the quality of the book -- or lack thereof -- themselves."
Oddly, if the agency were to win its suit and the book continued to sell, the CIA would be given the profits.
Jones and other former CIA officers have complained in the past that the CIA's publication review consistently favors former spies who tell stories flattering to the agency. Jones suggested that the antipathy towards the book focused on his message, a sharp critique of the CIA.
In the book's forward about why he chose to publish before getting the CIA's approval, Jones claimed that two recent books by high ranking CIA officials, including one by former director George Tenet, revealed "startling amount[s] of classified information."
"These books criticize the President, however, and not the organization."