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Redactions in Modern Literature: Background information when reading An Ordinary Spy

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An Ordinary Spy

A Novel

by Joseph Weisberg

An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg X
An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2007, 288 pages
    Jan 2009, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading
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About this Book

Redactions in Modern Literature

This article relates to An Ordinary Spy

Print Review

Though the memo at the end of the novel from the CIA Publications Review Board is addressed to the novel's protagonist, Mark Ruttenberg, thus revealing the redactions (blanked out text) as a fictional device to create an aura of authenticity, the noveldid actually pass by the PRB—six times. Weisberg preemptively redacted his own work for security reasons as well as literary ones, but was obligated to submit it to the PRB before even seeking a book contract. Each subsequent round of editing required another round of approval from the PRB, though they only added a few deletions to Weisberg's own. Thus it is impossible to know who deleted a given passage or why, making it seem as if the book has been jointly authored in the negative.

An Ordinary Spy is only the latest in a growing list of books published with redactions intact, though it is the first novel. The CIA prevents the publication of information about covert sources and methods, but its redactions have increasingly come to be viewed as politically motivated; publishing its redactions is a way for authors to expose the CIA's machinations, if not the disputed content. The practice dates at least as far back as 1974, when Victor L. Marchetti and John D. Marks publishedThe C.I.A. and the Cult of Intelligence with 168 redactions. Robert Baer, a CIA officer in the Middle East for twenty years and the inspiration for George Clooney's character in Syriana, wrote See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism in 2002 with redactions on view. Gary Berntsen'sJawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda contained the equivalent of 75 pages of redactions, until the author sued the agency for infringing on his First Amendment rights and was able to share the omissions with readers.

In December 2006, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann wrote an op-ed article about future military plans against Iran for the New York Times which was cleared by the CIA and then redacted by the White House. In retaliation, they published theredacted article, an essay about the redactions, and a list of public sources pertaining to the redacted material.

Perhaps the best known instance of published redactions is Valerie Plame's memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, in which the black lines congregate so thickly that at times the book is difficult to read. Plame contends the redactions are politically motivated, because some of them pertain to information already in the public domain, such as the dates of her service in the CIA.

Weisberg has written in the New York Times on the minute but crucial difference between secret and classified information. He points out that the two categories are not commensurate; a datum can be both public and classified. Thus he finds Valerie Plame's gripe with the PRB "petulant" and his article defends the CIA's practice of redaction as necessary to national security.

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Amy Reading

This "beyond the book article" relates to An Ordinary Spy. It originally ran in January 2008 and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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