The First Rule of the Fight Club…

I’ve been waiting to comment on the news that one of the SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden has a book coming out on September 11.

The publication will undoubtedly be yet another telling episode in our government’s asymmetric treatment of secrecy, but thus far it is too soon to say how. After all, when a SEAL wants to “correct the story,” does he plan to engage in a little JSOC score-settling (I heard rumors the Rangers and the SEALs had competing versions not long after the operation). Will he reveal details that change our understanding of Pakistani knowledge of the operation? Or will he significantly upend the myth Obama’s team has spun about it? All were–and probably still are–possible.

In any case, the book publication will present an interesting challenge for the Obama Administration, which has gone to great lengths to prevent or disincent publication of other books revealing secret information. Nevertheless, the completely arbitrary system for prepublication review seems to encourage people to bypass the system. (This SEAL has already planned to donate much of the proceeds of the book, following a lead set by Ishmael Jones, which takes away one of the tools the government might use against him.)

Finally, there’s the political problem Obama will have. It’ll be hard for the Administration to villainize this SEAL the way it has given others. After all, the SEAL played a key role in half of Obama’s re-election bumper sticker: “Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive.” Either he’s a hero for killing OBL, or he’s not, right?

It’s against that background that I read the exposure–first by a Fox News Pentagon reporter, citing “multiple sources,” and then by Craig Whitlock, citing “Pentagon sources”–of the SEAL’s real identity. Given that the Pentagon was sharing (or at least confirming) the SEAL’s identity to the WaPo, then this line from the SOCOM spokesperson is rather ominous.

And Col. Tim Nye, a Special Operations Command spokesman, said the author “put himself in danger” by writing the book.

“This individual came forward. He started the process. He had to have known where this would lead,” Nye said. “He’s the one who started this so he bears the ultimate responsibility for this.”

That is, the first DOD source to go on the record has effectively told this guy, “it’s your fault if you become a target.” (Though we’re at least supposed to assume that Fishel and Whitlock are working with different sources, because Fishel reported that DOD had not yet confirmed the SEAL’s identity, whereas the lead of Whitlock’s story is that they had.)

Then there’s this detail: Whitlock notes that the OBL raid, was, technically, a CIA covert op, meaning the CIA might get to complain about the information in the book even though DOD has no prepublication process.

Pentagon and Navy officials said they were unaware of Bissonnette’s plans to write the book until Dutton announced its publication Wednesday. They said he did not submit an advance copy to military officials for review to ensure that it does not contain classified information.that could jeopardize national security.

But it was unclear what, if any, restrictions Bissonnette faced. Navy officials said there is no blanket rule requiring active-duty service members or veterans to obtain permission to publish, although they can be prosecuted after the factby the Justice Department if they disclose classified information.

Bissonnette, however, was technically on assignment for the CIA, which oversaw the bin Laden operation.The spy agency routinely requires its personnel to sign non-disclosure agreements, particularly in the case of sensitive missions.

The CIA has said that “No Easy Day” was not submitted for pre-publication review.

If the CIA did claim the SEAL violated prepublication requirements, it would be the height of cynicism. As I understand it, CIA had the lead on this solely to make it legally a non-military op, changing the legal status of it. While it was technically a covert op, the readiness with which the Administration has discussed it since should strip it of its covert status.

Finally, note this dynamic, which never ceases to be of interest: the guy who was ultimately in charge of the “covert op” to kill OBL Leon Panetta, now heads the Pentagon, where all this chatter about the SEAL’s identity seems to be coming from.

Update: I hadn’t seen this Eli Lake story before I wrote this. He quotes Admiral McRaven suggesting this SEAL wrote the book for his own self-enrichment.

The pending publication of the book, No Easy Day: The First Hand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, so stirred Admiral William McRaven, chief of the Special Operations Command, that he sent a letter Thursday to special-operations forces warning against using their elite military affiliation for personal gain, according to Pentagon officials who asked not to be named.

In the letter, McRaven said that while it was within the rights of former special-operations soldiers to “write books about their adventures, it is disappointing when these actions either attempt to represent the broader [special-operations forces] community, or expose sensitive information that could threaten the lives of their fellow warriors.” [my emphasis]

That impugns what this SEAL at least claims his motive is: to tell the truth. Moreover, since he has already donated most of his proceeds, he doesn’t seem to be trying to get rich off this book (though now that he’s been outed, it is likely he’ll get follow-up deals).

If there are inaccurate details out there, how is it self-serving to try to correct those inaccuracies?

We still don’t know that’s what the book is about, but DOD seems quick to hang this guy out.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. phred says:

    Oh my. Looks to me like there are panties bunched all around DC over having potentially lost control of the narrative. I wonder if these folks have yet seen advanced copies or whether they are simply afraid of the unknown?

    When I first heard about the book, I had assumed it was just another bit of OBL pre-election hagiography to make Caesar Obama look big and tough. Now I’m not so sure…

  2. MadDog says:

    A couple thoughts on the topic:

    1) Like you, I still don’t have a good feel for whether Bissonnette’s “correct the story” OBL book will add to or detract from the Obama Administration’s story line. “Correcting the story” tends to suggest detraction, but perhaps it debunks Chuck Pfarrer’s SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden, a tome that has already been officially dissed by various current US officials.

    I’m guessing tidbits will surface shortly to make the direction of Bissonnette’s “correct the story” OBL book more clear.

    2) I’m curious whether Bissonnette’s book will add more substantive confirmation to the almost certain fact that there was an official US “kill order” for OBL rather than a “capture or kill order”.

    3) I’m also curious whether Bissonnette’s book will delve into the issue that in the minutes, not seconds, of the Seals raid on the OBL’s compound leading up to his death, Osama Bin Laden deliberately chose not to arm himself with the weapons he had at hand in the room within a few feet from where he was shot.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: I don’t know that they will do tidbuts. I linked to the story of Operation Dark Heart, above. In that, once they saw pre-release copies they started insisting on redactions. By not pre-releasing, the publisher would be using laws prohibiting prior restraint against the govt to get to the point where it can sell these.

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel:I fully expect a pre-publication legal assault in court by the US government given the various statements sourced to US government officials like that quoted below of Adm. Bill McRaven, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, and Pentagon spokesman George Little today:

    “…Special operations chief Adm. Bill McRaven warned his troops, current and former, that he would take legal action against anyone found to have exposed sensitive information that could cause fellow forces harm.

    “We will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution where appropriate,” the four-star commander wrote, in an open, unclassified letter emailed to the active-duty special operations community Thursday, and obtained by The Associated Press.

    The warning came a day after a retired Navy commando revealed he is publishing a first-hand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials say they have not been given a chance to review the book, but Pentagon spokesman George Little said Friday officials expect to receive a copy “very shortly…”

    It remains to be seen whether the US government will prevail in court or not, but given the total deference, nay subservience that the Federal courts now give to the Executive branch when it claims everything it does is “national security” that you yourself recently described, I think the odds favor prior restraint. At least in the short term pending appeal.

    And btw, I see I didn’t pique your curiosity enough to take my bait dagnabbit with my revelation that OBL deliberately chose not to arm himself during the Seal raid that got him killed.

    I’ve given it a good deal thought and I’ll have to spend some time writing down my logic of why I believe it to be the case, and then maybe I’ll throw it up as a comment for general critique.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This seems so likely to be propaganda it boggles the mind. Andy McNab, pen name for an alleged British SAS soldier (or government collective) has made a career writing shoot and tell fiction since the first Gulf War. All of it, oddly, shows him and his comrades in arms in a good light.

    The SEALs have nearly the same anonymity fettish as the SAS. So no active duty or recently active duty SEAL is writing a book, let alone spilling secrets. If he did, his service pension and security clearance would be among the least important items he would be putting in jeopardy.

    If this were truly about revealing government ops, SEAL tactics or intel sources and methods, it would be as hard to find an American publisher for it as it would be to find a senior American diplomat actively campaigning for Julian Assange’s freedom.

    This seems likely to be a recruiting tool, general propaganda tool, and an electioneering stunt. As with Kremlin watching, if it “reveals” anything useful the government didn’t want us to know, it will have been as unintentional as the Obama administration running an “open” government.

  6. OrionATL says:

    what an embarrassment our american presidential election has become – all sham and scams and lies, our political reality show.

    acting as leaders we have

    – wilbur romney, power addict and serial liar,

    – paul ryan, a dimwitted ayn ryan acolyte acclaimed as his party’s intellectual leader (and chief fund raiser)

    and

    – barrack obama, a patent-leather-shoed, conflict-avoiding weenie from academia masquerading as the six-gun kid.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @OrionATL: I don’t believe Mr. Obama is an academic weenie. He’s a smooth Chicago operator. There’s nothing hesitant or weenie-ish about his establishing a firm, “centrist”, bipartisan political foundation for most of the outrageous excesses of Cheney and Bush.

  8. OrionATL says:

    @earlofhuntingdon:

    e of h –

    the president is indeed a smooth political operator.

    he is a weenie in my view for failing to take the risks and make the effort to establish himself as a political force after taking office.

    he is a weenie for being the conflict-avoiding, boardroom-charmer of a “leader” whose primary goal was to convince the politically and economically powerful that he intended them no harm.

    he is a weenie for failing to take the heat he would have been required to take to implement at least some of his 2008 campaign promises.

    he is a weenie for adopting the strutting, bullying, psuedo-macho that the employment of american military and paramilitary force since 2003 has epitomized.

  9. Speer's old cell says:

    I can’t wait to hear the real story. We know that the SEAL team took great pains to make a positive identification of their extrajudicial-murder target Osama bin Laden. On one account that included a DNA sample. Anybody think they could have verified ObL’s identity so rigorously without detaining him? And if they detained him, the execution is wilful killing of a prisoner, which has been a capital crime under US law ever since the Lieber Code, and a war crime under Hague Convention Article 23. Direct supervision at the highest levels implicates Barack Obama in this war crime along with his death squad, and the institutionalized programmatic nature of the death squad makes the practice a crime of concern to the international community, subject to ICC investigation and UNSC referral of charges.

    So let the swift-boating begin!

  10. Jason Leopold says:

    True story: Matt Bissonette is a session bass player who has performed with David Lee Roth, Joe Satriani and Lita Ford to name a few. Through a mutual acquaintance, I was told that Bissonette, the musician, has been bombarded by dozens of phone calls, some that are concerning as you can probably imagine, about “his book.”

    bonus trivia: Matt’s brother, Gregg Bissonette, was the drummer on David Lee Roth’s first couple of solo albums.

  11. Sailornuntown says:

    I thought these guys liked to call themselves “The Quiet Professionals.” Yeah, right.

    Actually the degree to which these guys spend time thinking about and publicizing themselves–Ok, we get it, you’re Elite, you’re Elite!–due in no small part to Obama’s deification of them and his support and direction of their co-optation of foreign policy, has turned them into a true national fetish. This IMHO is the most worrying of the current many worrying current trends.

  12. P J Evans says:

    The guys on the other side of the wars have picked up on this and have announced that they’re targeting Bissonnette, as you might expect (but apparently Fox doesn’t care).
    Nothing like having everyone wanting you out of circulation.

  13. OrionATL says:

    @Sailornuntown:

    yes!

    these guys have a job to do that is supposed to be done very quietly, without public notice.

    whether they understand it or not, becoming action figures is not necessarily a good thing.

    that david plouffe and david axelrod have been allowed to use the seals’ operations as campaign fodder makes a righteous mockery of the obama admin’s vendetta against bradley manning and (secretly) against julian assange.

  14. lefty665 says:

    Many of the SEALs involved were subsequently reported killed in a helicopter crash. Awfully convenient that one of a very few eyewitnesses is left to tell the tale. Perhaps the “crash” itself was a cover story.

    Anyone have rough numbers of surviving OBL SEALs and how many were actually in the room for the denouement?

  15. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The SEAL’s business is inherently among the most dangerous in the world; I would not take a claim of death lightly. On the other hand, faked deaths are a convenient tool used to block research into identities of these operators and the work they and their sponsoring organizations do. Not coincidentally, that makes it harder for citizens to confirm their government’s claims about its special forces and the purpose(s) of the acts they perform, all in the name of and paid for by those [email protected]lefty665: .

Comments are closed.