Prepublication Review: A Far-Reaching System of Government Censorship

Imagine living under a system where your writing
must be approved by the government before it can be published…that gives a team of
government censors the power to remove information they don’t want the public to know, and
the ability to delay publication of manuscripts that could help the public understand and
influence key policy decisions. In America, we know that the First Amendment
is supposed to protect us from this kind of censorship. We have a right to speak our minds and to
hear what others have to say. It’s fundamental to who we are…it’s
the bedrock of our democracy. Yet, under a censorship system known as prepublication
review, millions of former intelligence-agency employees and military personnel must submit
anything they write about their public service to government censors before these writings
can be published. And they have to do so their entire lives. Those who don’t can face serious penalties. Introduced in 1947, this censorship system
originally applied only to CIA employees and was meant to protect national security secrets. Since then it has spiraled out of control. Today, at least 17 federal agencies require
review…even for employees who never had access to sensitive information. The review process can take months. Decisions on what gets censored are often
arbitrary and unexplained. Favored officials seem to receive special
treatment. Those with critical viewpoints often wait
longer and are censored more. Take the case of Mark Fallon. Fallon joined the Naval Criminal Investigative
Service in 1981. Following 9/11, he fought against the torture
of prisoners held in U.S. detention. During the 2016 presidential campaign, when
then-candidate Trump pledged to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,”
Fallon felt compelled to write a book to explain why these abuses should never be repeated. Someone with Fallon’s experience should
be a central voice in our national debate. But that’s not what happened. I spent 31 years in sworn duty to support
and defend the Constitution of the United States. I take seriously my obligation to protect
information essential to our national security and understand the consequences, including
criminal prosecution, of breaking the public’s trust. In writing my book, I meticulously cited congressional
hearings and official investigations to show that the information I included was already
public. In January 2017, I submitted my manuscript
to the military. Defense Department regulations provide that
review should generally take 30 working days, but the government held my manuscript for
233 days, only releasing it after the Knight Institute and ACLU intervened. When I got it back, months after the planned
publication date, the government required 113 separate redactions, all relating to information
that was already public, and several more than two pages long. Fallon’s experience isn’t unique. A former FBI agent saw much of his memoir
redacted, although the information was publicly available, and had even been published in
the memoir of a former CIA Director. A former NSA analyst had her book held in
review for over two years. A former intelligence employee decided against
running for office after being told he’d have to submit all of his campaign statements
for review. The list goes on. There may be a place for prepublication review,
but it should be limited in scope, clear in what it covers, and consistent with constitutional
protections for free speech. The system we have now is broken. It discourages some of our most knowledgeable
and experienced public servants from joining public conversations that are crucial to our
country’s future. This is the very opposite of what the First
Amendment intends and is not good for any of us. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia
University and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit challenging this far-reaching censorship system. To learn more, visit

  1. Few know that this type of censorship is going on or understand the degree to which it curtails the public’s access to information of utmost national importance. I’m proud to stand against this censorship with the other national security professionals who honorably served our country, as well as the Knight Institute and ACLU for defending our Constitutional Rights…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *