The U.S. Navy Seal who fired the coup de grâce shots into the chest of dying al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden may have revealed classified information by writing a book about the raid, senior officials said Tuesday. But the Pentagon’s vague threats haven’t cowed the author.
Meanwhile, the raging controversy of the book – No Easy Day – helped it shoot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list before it even went on sale Tuesday.
Enraged by leaks from advance copies of the book, senior Pentagon officials have been vaguely threatening unspecified action against the author and publisher for several days.
“It is important that those who are involved in such operations take care to protect sensitive and classified information,” said George Little, spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“If I had been part of the raid team on the ground and I had decided to write a book about it, it wouldn’t have been a tough decision for me to submit the book for pre-publication review,” he added. “That is common sense, it’s a no-brainer, and it did not happen.”
But it was the White House – in the heady rush to take credit for the raid – that disclosed the most about the top-secret, helicopter-borne night attack deep into Pakistani territory on May 2, 2011, that finally bagged Mr. bin Laden. Many of those details were overly dramatic and later proved wrong.
Mark Owen, the pseudonym of the Seal turned author, alludes to the leaky White House in the book, claiming he was reluctant to sign his real name to a framed flag sent by the elite Team Six to President Barack Obama for fear that it was be disclosed. Everything else about the raid, he said, had been revealed in various leaks.
The release of the book, though, has reignited a nasty debate over whether Mr. Obama was seeking political advantage by disclosing news of it even before captured documents and computers were analyzed for intelligence.
A parallel furor has erupted over whether America’s most highly trained, covert killers, should be seeking profit and celebrity from service – no matter how dangerous – to their nation.
In a toughly worded letter, the commander of all navy special forces, Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, criticized “hawking details about a mission” and warned tougher measures may be needed to “influence our people in and out of uniform not to seek inappropriate monetary, political, or celebrity profit.”
While other, relatively detailed, accounts of the raid have already been published, it is the sometimes riveting, sometimes puerile, “insider” details that distinguish No Easy Day – a reference to the Seals’ use of the phrase to mean that the only easy day was yesterday.
The book’s author – now identified as an Alaska-born special forces officer named Matt Bissonnette – provides fast-paced tales of derring-do that are full of gory details, rigorous training, male bonding and patriotism. But there’s little in the 316-page book that obviously betrays operational secrets.
Whether the Pentagon can prove its claim that “classified” material was improperly disclosed remains unclear. So far, through his lawyers, Mr. Bissonnette has defended his right to write and claimed there was no requirement to clear the book in advance with the Pentagon.
The Pentagon’s senior legal advisor, Jeh Johnson has warned Mr. Bissonnette that “further public dissemination of your book will aggravate your breach and violation” of non-disclosure agreements signed five years ago when he joined the elite special forces.
Penguin, the book’s publisher, was unimpressed. “We see no reason to change our plans,” Christine Ball, a spokeswoman for Penguin said. Rather, it has nearly tripled the initial edition to 575,000 copies.
And the Pentagon admits it’s pointless to attempt to prevent publication. “Pre-release copies of the book were already being circulated around,” Mr. Little said. “So the practical effect of requesting that the publisher withhold release of the book just wasn’t an available option.”
The actual killing of the fugitive al-Qaeda leader turned out to be anticlimactic. Contrary to the initial White House version of an armed bin Laden being killed during a gunfight, Mr. Bissonnette’s first-person version is more prosaic.
He was right behind the Seal who shot a head that peeked around a door on the villa’s third level. By the time the team had stormed the room, the al-Qaeda leader was twitching in his death throes. Mr. Bissonette and another Seal fired several times into his chest to make sure. The al-Qeada leader wasn’t armed. In fact, his gun in his desk, was unloaded.
Then Mr. Bissonnette said he wiped away the blood on the al-Qaeda leader’s face so he could get quality photographs. “Hey man, hold his good eye open,” Mr. Bissonnette recalls saying to another Seal. The first shot had torn out one eye, leaving a gaping hole in Osama bin Laden’s face. “It was strange to see such an infamous face up close, lying in front on me was the reason we had been fighting for the last decade. It was surreal trying to clean blood off the most wanted man in the world so I could shoot his photo,” Mr. Bissonnette writes.
Those photos, Mr. Obama decided later, were never to be published.