WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and CIA are reviewing a forthcoming book by a retired Navy SEAL who was on the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and they are considering legal action against the author for failing to submit his account for security review, officials said.
U.S. intelligence officials are scrutinizing “No Easy Day” by former SEAL Matt Bissonnette to see if it reveals sensitive sources and techniques or operational details, a process that could take weeks.
The book, due to go on sale next week and already on bestseller lists, has sparked a fierce debate in the close-knit special operations community about whether the long-standing ethic to stay silent for those who carry out America’s most sensitive military operations is breaking down after a decade of war.
Several U.S. officials who have read the book said it apparently does not quote from clearly classified documents, such as intelligence reports about Bin Laden’s whereabouts or after-action reports about the raid. Even so, the officials conducting the review are examining closely whether special operations tactics possibly useful to insurgents might be disclosed.
The account is the first by a member of SEAL Team Six, which carried out the stealthy nighttime assault on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Bissonnette writes that he was ascending a staircase in the dark when a SEAL ahead of him opened fire at Bin Laden as he peeked out of a second-floor doorway, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the book. The SEALs discovered Bin Laden lying in a pool of blood and fired several more times until his body stopped moving, the book claims.
Several details in his account differ slightly from those offered by administration officials in the hours and days after Bin Laden’s death. Some officials said at the time that Bin Laden was killed when it appeared he might be reaching for a weapon.
Bissonnette’s book comes days after another group of former special operations members launched a harshly worded website and released a short film criticizing President Obama for what they said was his administration’s exploitation of the raid for political gain.
Last week, Adm. Bill McRaven, who heads Special Operations Command, said he was “concerned about the growing trend of using the special operations ‘brand,’ our seal, symbols and unit names, as part of any political or special interest campaign.”
Noting that every special operator signs an agreement not to disclose classified information, McRaven wrote that “if the U.S. Special Operations Command finds that an active duty, retired or former service member violated that agreement … we will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution, where appropriate.”
Bissonnette, 36, who had been awarded five bronze stars, left the military last summer. He had not served long enough to qualify for a pension, which could make it more difficult for the Pentagon to punish him — if it decides to do so — by withholding benefits, officials conceded.
So far, Republican members of Congress and others who sharply criticized Obama and his aides for releasing details about the raid to the public, to authors and to a pair of Hollywood filmmakers, have been largely silent about a first-person memoir by a former SEAL who took part in the attack.
Scott Taylor, a former SEAL who left the military in 2005 and is a founder of a group critical of the Obama administration, called Bissonnette a “hero,” however. In a telephone interview, he said “a pervasive culture of leaks” had probably encouraged Bissonnette to write his account.
“Certainly operation security protections apply to everyone up and down the chain of command, but this book probably would not have been written” if the Obama administration had not encouraged the idea that disclosure of details about the raids was acceptable, Taylor said.
It is the latest in a series of popular books, films and media accounts about elite commandos that have offered unprecedented glimpses of a world that long operated in secrecy. To what extent the disclosures have damaged national security — or were simply part of a public relations strategy — is unclear.
With copies of the book already circulating, the government has little chance of keeping secret any sensitive details it contains. But officials said they are considering a Justice Department lawsuit against Bissonnette for failing to comply with the requirement to submit the book for review.
“We’re considering our options,” said Army Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman.
Any attempt to punish Bissonnette could create a political minefield for the Obama administration, however. The White House could face criticism for going after a former SEAL when senior officials have largely escaped scrutiny.
So far, the White House is declining to comment on the book, other than to praise the SEALs involved in the operation.
“As President Obama said on the night that justice was brought to Osama bin Laden, ‘We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country,’” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Bissonnette wrote under a pseudonym, Mark Owen, with a co-author, Kevin Maurer, but his name was disclosed by news organizations last week and confirmed by U.S. officials.
The producers of two films, “Act of Valor,” which was released earlier this year and used active-duty SEALs as actors, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” which is scheduled for release this year and focuses on the Bin Laden raid, received extensive help from the Pentagon and CIA. Dozens of other books and movies have depicted special operations troops over the years, with varying degrees of accuracy and help from the government.
But “No Easy Day” is unique in that it was written by a member of the unit that carried out the Bin Laden raid and was done without U.S. government involvement. The cover describes it as “the firsthand account of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.” It contains grisly new details of the shooting of Bin Laden, but does not change the known outline of the events of May 2, 2011.
Although the SEALs were not fans of Obama, Bissonnette writes, one joked after the raid that they had probably just gotten him reelected.
At the same time, Bissonnette writes that the SEALs respected Obama as commander in chief and for approving the risky operation.
Administration officials and Bissonnette apparently agree on one key issue: The SEALs were told that if Bin Laden immediately surrendered and posed no threat, he could be taken captive. Otherwise, the team was authorized to kill him.