When published in hardback in 2006, Peter Lance’s investigative book, “Triple Cross,” deserved more attention than it got.

Thanks to U.S Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor of Scooter Libby and Rod Blagojevich, the paperback release of “Triple Cross” next will get much more attention than the hardback release did three years ago.

Fitzgerald does not approve of the book’s thesis, a thesis embedded in the original subtitle, “How bin Laden’s Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets and the FBI – and Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him.” And he is doing everything he can to prevent the book’s paperback publication.

Fitzgerald’s efforts have caught the unflattering attention of Newsweek, New York Magazine and even activist librarians.

The book deals specifically with the FBI’s failure to stop the master spy in question, Ali Mohamed, who had infiltrated the Bureau, the CIA and the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Of particular interest to me, Lance details how the Ali Mohamed case intersected with the TWA Flight 800 case, a subject Lance is not afraid to tackle.

More generally, the book documents the role Southern District New York (SDNY) Fitzgerald played in the war on terror, a war Lance claims Fitzgerald badly mismanaged before Sept. 11, 2001. (See PeterLance.com for details.)

Claiming to have been defamed, Fitzgerald sent Harper Collins an 11-page letter in October 2007 demanding that the publisher publicly apologize, withdraw all copies of the book and refrain from publishing any updated versions.

Needless to say, this was not a friendly admonition. It came with an implicit threat to sue, even if HarperCollins met Fitzgerald’s terms.

HarperCollins took the threat seriously. Fitzgerald has a reputation for playing hardball. He had earned it by prosecuting Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby for misremembering details of a pseudo-crime Fitzgerald knew he did not commit.

In that same case, Fitzgerald added another notch on his belt by sending New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for 85 days for failing to turn over her confidential sources.

Despite Fitzgerald’s reputation, the publisher’s general counsel, Mark Jackson, responded forcefully to Fitzgerald that “HarperCollins does not believe that there is any merit to the claims contained in your October 11 letter.”

On Nov. 16, 2007, Fitzgerald fired back an even more threatening 16-page letter. Although on private stationery, this letter was sent while Fitzgerald was overseeing the investigation into Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

On Sept. 22. 2008, at the very climax of the Blagojevich investigation, Fitzgerald weighed in again. He acknowledged that the paperback edition had been delayed but wondered why existing hardback copies had not been withdrawn from bookstores.

In May 2009, HarperCollins notified Fitzgerald that a paperback was in the works, that his name had been removed from the subtitle, and that a few minor corrections had made.

HarperCollins, however, had reviewed Lance’s allegations thoroughly and was standing behind them.

This outraged Fitzgerald. In a June 2, 2009, letter, his fourth, he claimed that each day the book remained in circulation was “both a new and continuing defamation.”

In this letter, Fitzgerald warns HarperCollins that it risked punitive damages and suggested that litigation was imminent.

An equally unsettling development would take place in the days following Fitzgerald’s fourth letter. Ann Sparanese, an anti-censorship advocate and a former member of the governing Council of the American Library Association, posted an item on the blog Library Juice criticizing Fitzgerald.

Sparanese noted that Fitzgerald had sent at least one letter on a U.S. Attorney fax machine, that he had already tied up publication of “Triple Cross” for 18 months while author and publisher were forced to review his charges, and that his effort represents an “example of the chilling effect of censorship.”

An attorney named Cynthia Kouril, who had served in the Southern District of New York that Lance had investigated, immediately responded to Sparanese’s posting.

Kouril warned the blog’s host, Rory Litwin, that “by making a conscious editorial choice to post [Sparanese’s piece], rather than being a passive host, you do take responisbility (sic) for content under the Electronic Comminications Decency Act.”

To his credit, Litwin did not back down. “Ms. Kouril, you seem to be implying that Ann Sparanese might be guilty of libel or otherwise vulnerable in a lawsuit because of the short piece that appears here,” he responded, “and that by publishing her post I might be vulnerable in a lawsuit also. Is this really what you intend to suggest?”

That is exactly what Kouril was suggesting. Lance fired back on the same blog:

If anybody wonders why HarperCollins and I spent months re-vetting “Triple Cross” after Patrick Fitzgerald sent multiple letters threatening to sue for libel, Cynthia Kouril’s attacks on Ann Sparanese’s defense of my right to publish the book are proof positive of how the Feds – and ex Feds – try and chill those who have the audacity to criticize them.

I have seen this suppression up close. The FBI arrested my TWA 800 writing partner, James Sanders, and his wife, Elizabeth, for Sanders’ reporting on the Feds’ foul play in the TWA 800 case.

The federal investigation into the Sanderses began days after Sanders’ research into government malfeasance had been featured in a major newspaper article.

In a subsequent civil trial, the judge acknowledged that the FBI’s “aggressive investigation commenced immediately following publication of the newspaper article,” but, the judge continued, “it does not follow that [the Sanderses] were punished because they may have drawn blood.”

The name of that judge? Sonia Sotomayor. If things go as planned, Fitzgerald may want to take his case directly to the Supreme Court.

Author’s note: Fitzgerald and I attended the same New York City high school, although he presumably at a less inspired time.

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