Navy SEALS are taught to practice OPSEC, elaborate operational security tactics to preserve the element of surprise in carrying out missions. Former commando Matt Bissonnette seems to have put that training to good use in the publication of his controversial tell-all book about the assault that killed Osama bin Laden. Bissonnette, who was a member of the SEAL team that snuffed out the terrorist mastermind, and his publisher went to unusual lengths to conceal the existence of the project until the publisher announced it last month.
For the Pentagon it was tantamount to a sneak attack. Officials were taken by complete surprise when details of the sensational account began appearing in the media. Adding to the pressure was the fact that Bissonnette’s account of the bin Laden raid was at odds with the Obama White House’s version in some key respects, notably whether the terrorist mastermind represented a genuine threat to the commandos when they killed him. Last week officials scrambled to get a copy of the book to see whether Bissonnette’s account, No Easy Day (written under the pseudonym Mark Owen), revealed classified information. But by the time government vetters got their hands on it, thousands of copies had already been shipped to stores and the title stood atop Amazon’s sales list.
“We were caught completely off guard,” conceded one senior Pentagon official, who says national-security personnel are obligated to submit manuscripts containing sensitive information for prepublication review (Bissonnette’s lawyer says the regs merely “invite” authors to show vetters but don’t require it). Late last week, Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson sent a letter to Bissonnette in a last-ditch bid to minimize the damage. The threat of legal action was aimed at pressuring Bissonnette and his publisher, Dutton, to submit to the Pentagon’s demands for prepublication review. In the past, the DOD has succeeded in halting distribution of books, even in some cases pulping printed copies. But in the case of No Easy Day, it is likely too late to prevent the book from receiving wide public exposure. “At this point the onus is on the SEAL and his publisher to put the genie back in the bottle,” says one senior Pentagon official, declining to explain how that would be possible.
The Pentagon has not disclosed whether it believes No Easy Day divulges classified secrets, though one official told Newsweek “you can bet we wouldn’t have sent the letter if we didn’t think there were serious security breaches.”
Making the situation all the more awkward: the administration itself may have opened the door. The White House has drawn fire for putting out its own cinematic version of the bin Laden raid. The move rankled critics, who say it smacks of end-zone dancing and could compromise future missions. Several SEALS were motivated to back a super-PAC ad faulting Obama’s leadership. All the attention would seem at odds with the culture of the SEALS, who pride themselves on a code of omertà. But if the organization hates the spotlight, you wouldn’t know it from their recent behavior. This spring, they helped produce a wide-release movie called Act of Valor—no Oscar threat, but a good way to recruit successors to Matt Bissonnette.