What the CIA's Censors Can Teach Us about Plans to Muzzle Talk Radio

The Central Intelligence Agency runs a small bureau that censors books and articles written by current and former CIA employees. As the only official censorship bureau in America, its operation provides insights on how attempts to muzzle conservative talk radio through a renewed Fairness Doctrine or FCC "localism" may work. It also provides reasons for optimism about the eventual outcome.  

CIA censorship seems to make sense at first glance - shouldn't there be a bureau that ensures secrets are not revealed? But CIA censors routinely approve books that contain classified material - especially those critical of the Bush administration - so long as they are not critical of the CIA itself. Memoirs by former CIA Director George Tenet and other top bureaucrats contain startling amounts of classified information. The CIA must use secrecy to hide the identities of agents and operations, of course, but separate laws have always covered that. The CIA has taken its unique ability to void the First Amendment, awarded by a judge in the late 1970's, and used it for its own agenda.

Either information is secret or it isn't. If America's only censorship bureau cannot handle the simple task of determining whether something is classified or unclassified, then we should be wary of creating multiple FCC censorship bureaus to handle far more complex and subjective issues. How can Americans possibly rely on government bureaucrats to decide what is fair and balanced?

The Fairness Doctrine may seem to make sense at a superficial glance - shouldn't all viewpoints be heard, shouldn't the media be fair? But the purpose of a renewed Fairness Doctrine appears to be simply to attack conservative talk radio. The political left's free speech is not constrained by talk radio, because it dominates most other media.

Just as open criticism of the CIA is vital because it can lead to repair of the intelligence gaps that expose Americans to great risk, uncensored talk radio is vital for American freedom because it allows free speech to be heard.

The Founders understood the evil of censorship and knew that censors would never be a panel of wise graybeards issuing Solomonic decisions. CIA censors are ordinary humans who weigh decisions based upon what is in their own interest. They ask themselves, "What decision can I make that will please my boss? What decision will improve my job security, my chances for advancement in the organization?" Censors employed under the Fairness Doctrine would likewise make decisions Chicago-style, decisions meant to serve the people who created their jobs and control their promotions.

Fortunately, the Fairness Doctrine is so obviously unconstitutional in the eyes of most Americans, so blatantly an attempt to block free speech, that it should be easy to defeat. Respect for the First Amendment is broad in American society - American soldiers fight to defend it, schoolchildren understand its importance. Happy warriors like Rush and Sean are already taking on the Fairness Doctrine with full confidence.

Smart politicians on the left know this and it's unlikely that a Rahm Emanuel, for example, would recommend support for heavy-handed attempts to censor conservative radio via a renewed Fairness Doctrine.

More likely is that the left will use the subtle, silent, and creeping tool of government bureaucracy to strangle conservative talk radio. The enforcement of "localism" regulations, as described in a 17 November 2008 American Thinker article by Jim Boulet, would use a system of complaints to the FCC and community advisory boards to attack conservative radio. A few tweaks in FCC regulations can require radio stations to submit time-wasting and expensive reports, hold public meetings, and create panels of local residents, led by community organizers, to evaluate programming. If the bureaucrats and peoples' panels are not pleased with a radio station's compliance, they'll be able to take away the station's license. The goal would be to attack conservative radio in obscurity, without an open showdown.

The behavior of CIA censors may be helpful in predicting that of FCC bureaucrats. Moving with the speed of an old oak tree, CIA censors respond months later to queries, if at all. A book I wrote as a tool in intelligence reform took CIA censors a year to read, and after lots of evasive conversations suggesting they might approve it, in the end came back as a stack of blank pages. It contained no classified information, but was critical of the CIA. Books go from censor to censor, each of whom wields a black magic marker. Free speech entering one end of a censorship process, like hay through a horse, comes out unrecognizable at the other end.

New FCC offices may sprout up throughout the United States in response to new FCC localism or Fairness Doctrine authority. It will be fascinating to see if they come to resemble CIA domestic offices. A peculiarity of many CIA offices within the US is that they have television sets on, providing a busy, newsroom atmosphere. Since FCC offices would be monitoring media, it's possible they too may run radio and television sets in each room. Like the CIA, the FCC may argue that ever-greater amounts of money and employees are necessary to achieve its new mission, and as the money flows, and the number of employees grows, the FCC may become a constituent group of its own, with lobbying power, difficult to dislodge.

Censors are creative in inventing new reasons for delay. Although none of the CIA censors have actually served their country in a covert capacity, they injected spycraft into their communications by operating from anonymous post office boxes and phone numbers, and using false names, which added delay because of the infrequent checking of these P.O. boxes and answering machines.

Money can trump principles. CIA employees may choose not to speak out about fraud and corruption at the CIA simply because it is lucrative to co-exist within the CIA, whether as a contractor on $250,000 a year plus another contract for the spouse, or becoming rich through the CIA's contracting system. Radio stations must also look out for their own financial interests. Advocates of FCC localism will hope the cost of compliance with bureaucracy forces stations to take conservative talk radio off the air.

Conservative talk radio should not expect help from the legions of First Amendment Scholars in universities or the organizations which grandly claim, and seek donations, to fight for First Amendment rights. These people seem to favor the defense of the kind of free speech which doesn't require much bravery, speech such as profanity, or insulting Christianity or Judaism, speech that doesn't pose the risk of loss of property or imprisonment. Although the CIA runs the only official censorship bureau in America which can theoretically throw people in the slammer and confiscate property, I'm aware of no First Amendment Scholar who has written about it. These organizations may likewise find that conservative radio does not serve their agenda, and choose not to defend it. 

But in spite of these gloomy predictions, the behavior of the CIA's censorship bureau suggests that the outcome for conservative talk radio is optimistic. The flaw in censors' strategy is that while they seek to stifle free speech, they are also reluctant to take steps that might draw more attention to it.     

CIA censors have proven to be toothless when their bluff is called. They did not follow through on threats to prosecute because they fear prosecution would only bring more attention to the organization's corruption. Likewise, prosecution of conservative talk radio would only bring more attention to the views of conservative talk radio hosts. If censors decide to prosecute, they have to go to court, and censorship cannot win in open daylight, not in America.

The gatekeepers, the people who work as censors, didn't choose that line of work because they like to fight. They want to leave the office at five o'clock and get home. Go right at them and they'll fold.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to defy government, conservative talk radio is in an excellent position to fight back, raising the voices of free speech, bringing even more attention to the vitality of the American experiment, and defending American freedom.

Ishmael Jones, a former officer in the CIA's clandestine service, is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.