Report

Former Mattis Aide at Center of Dispute Over Pentagon Transparency

Some contend that the department’s delay in approving his memoir was due to longstanding protocol, not ill will.

Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy F/A-18 pilot, sued the Pentagon for dragging out a review of his upcoming book.
Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy F/A-18 pilot, sued the Pentagon for dragging out a review of his upcoming book. Courtesy Guy Snodgrass

The U.S. Defense Department approved a manuscript written by former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s onetime speechwriter with “minor redactions” on Wednesday, his lawyer told Foreign Policy, giving the retired Navy commander who sued the Pentagon last week a legal victory.

The decision will allow the former fighter pilot, Guy Snodgrass, to finally publish the controversial book, which promises an insider’s account of the complex relationship between Mattis and President Donald Trump. The book was originally due out on Oct. 29.

The manuscript is at the center of a bizarre dispute between Snodgrass, the Pentagon, and the former defense secretary, who just published his own book, Call Sign Chaos, and who is in the midst of a much-criticized media blitz. Snodgrass last week filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, alleging that the Pentagon has unlawfully dragged out a review of the manuscript, which his lawyer, Mark Zaid, said contains no classified information.

The clash is part of a broader discussion about the culture of silence that Mattis created at the Pentagon during his time in charge, limiting media access and interactions with Congress, and curtailing the release of even basic information about current conflicts. It also raises ethical questions about whether it is appropriate for the Defense Department to censor unclassified information it considers privileged.

“It’s frustrating that it needed to come to this to achieve what should have been the position from the outset,” said Zaid, who argues that the Pentagon is violating his client’s right to free speech. “The redactions they wanted were because of this illusory oath of loyalty to Mattis and the department, which doesn’t exist as a matter of law.”

“The Pentagon’s increasingly tight grip on information has led to a pernicious culture shift at the Defense Department,” writes Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent Foreign Policy piece.

The primary holdup to the book’s publication has been the department’s objections to Snodgrass’s account of conversations that took place inside “the Tank,” the conference room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet, said Zaid. Although these discussions were not classified, Snodgrass was told they were “off limits,” Zaid said in an interview.

“To this point, DoD has not identified that there is one classified word in this manuscript—not one,” he said.

But longtime government officials have a different take. Dana White, a former assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, said that it is normal for the department to protect activities inside the Tank. The department refused a request from National Geographic to shoot any discussions inside the room—limiting the magazine’s access to establishment shots only.

“Barring the public disclosure of anything that happens in the Tank is a longstanding protocol,” White said.

Another former government official said that “there is a norm, a cultural norm, that we don’t talk about what goes on in the Tank,” calling it “a hyper-sacred place.”

But Zaid believes the department has an alternate agenda: delaying Snodgrass’s book so that Mattis’s book would come out first. He said that Mattis’s deputy chief of staff, Peter Verga, threatened his client, telling Snodgrass: “If you do anything to harm the reputation of the department, you are done.”

One former senior defense official insisted that Mattis had nothing to do with the department’s decision to delay Snodgrass’s book, citing statutes that prohibit secretaries of defense from engaging with anyone at the Pentagon for two years after leaving office.

“This is pure fantasy. The department has a process—one that even delayed the release of Secretary Mattis’s book. Any notion that anyone has been singled out is simply false and ignores the realities of DoD’s rigorous clearance process,” the former official said.

Mattis has drawn criticism during his book tour for declining to criticize the president—who unceremoniously ousted him after Mattis announced his intent to resign in December—while vilifying former President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now running for president.

If Call Sign Chaos steers clear of criticizing Trump, Snodgrass’s book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, promises to expose the gory details of the “complicated relationship” between the two men. The book’s description on Amazon teases “an insider’s sometimes shocking account” of the decorated Marine general’s time in the Trump administration.

“A lifelong Marine widely considered to be one of America’s greatest generals, Mattis was committed to keeping America safe,” according to the description. “Yet he served a President whose actions were frequently unpredictable and impulsive with far-reaching consequences.”

Zaid insisted the book is not a “tell-all.” But some former officials say Snodgrass’s decision to write a book divulging information that was considered private broke the “circle of trust.”

The former senior defense official said Snodgrass, one of four speechwriters, suffered “delusions of grandeur that were clearly misplaced.”

“Unfortunately, he assumed a level of importance to his role that neither his responsibilities, position, nor rank afforded him,” the former defense official said.

Eaglen noted that both sides have solid arguments—Snodgrass’s legal objection to the department trying to prevent the release of nonclassified information, and Mattis’s “expectation of continued privacy on pre-decisional discussions.”

But she predicted that Snodgrass will ultimately prevail.

“The law is clear and Snodgrass will prevail on the technicality but not the spirit or intent behind what many senior decision-makers consider a ‘given’ in those discussions,” Eaglen told Foreign Policy.

Update, Sept. 11, 2019: This article has been updated to reflect that hours after the initial publication of this story, the U.S. Defense Department approved Snodgrass’s manuscript with minor redactions. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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