Posts

DOJ’s Double Standard on Osama Bin Laden Trophy Photos

Two and a half years ago, I first started pointing to the evidence that several of the guys on the Osama bin Laden operation took trophy photos.

[O]n February 15, 2013, DOJ informed Judicial Watch that CIA had found 7 more photos responsive to their FOIA. That happened just 4 days after Esquire published a splashy story about the guy who claimed to have been the SEAL who actually killed OBL. The current version includes this line.

In the compound, I thought about getting my camera, and I knew we needed to take pictures and ID him.

I had made the connection at the time, and I have a distinct suspicion the language was slightly different in the original (Esquire was making factual corrections along the way but the original is not on Internet Archive), making it clear that the Shooter and possibly others did take pictures, though perhaps not for operational purposes.

What kind of amped up warrior who had just helped kill the bogeyman could resist taking souvenir pictures? Could you blame them, if so?

In any case, I suspected at the time that the reason CIA “located” new photos was because they read about another set of photos in the possession in one of the guys who participated in the op, if not shot the lethal bullet. The ambiguity in the description of McRaven’s order seems to support that.

That is, what SOCOM and CIA appear to be protecting are — in significant part — the personal photos taken by the guys who did the operation.

The Intercept has a story describing how Matt Bissonnette — the guy who wrote No Easy Day — is under continued investigation as a result of having done just that.

It appears the government went after Bissonnette after he published his book, and demanded a cut of his profits and that he turn over a hard drive that had an “unauthorized” picture of OBL.

The retired SEAL voluntarily provided investigators with a copy of his hard drive as part of an agreement not to prosecute him for unlawfully possessing classified material, according to the two people familiar with the deal.

[snip]

Luskin said that he had negotiated a deal in 2014 with the Pentagon and the Justice Department to hand over to the government some of the millions of dollars in book profits Bissonnette had received.

He would not confirm Bissonnette’s possession of the bin Laden photo or whether any investigation still remains open.

But once DOJ got Bissonnette’s hard drive — which according to the Intercept was technically turned over voluntarily (meaning there’d be no warrant to limit the scope of what the government could do with it), they found evidence he may have had side deals associated with his procurement role for the team.

During their search of his hard drive, investigators subsequently found emails and records dealing with Bissonnette’s work as a consultant while he was on active duty at SEAL Team 6. Those records, which were not part of the non-prosecution agreement, led to the widening probe. Federal investigators then became interested in whether Bissonnette’s business ventures with companies that supply military equipment — including companies whose products were used by SEAL Team 6 — were helped by his role in the elite unit’s procurement process, according to one of the people familiar with the case.

Element Group, a company Bissonnette helped set up in Virginia Beach about five years ago, is among the companies NCIS is said to be investigating. According to a former SEAL Team 6 operator familiar with Element Group’s business arrangements, the firm, which has since been shut down, designed prototypes for, and advised, private companies that make sporting and tactical equipment.

According to several former SEAL Team operators familiar with the company, Element Group also did business with at least one Defense Department contractor that sold equipment to SEAL Team 6. The defense contractor, Atlantic Diving Supply, or ADS, has military supply and equipment contracts with SEAL Team 6, according to several former SEAL Team 6 operators, as well as other parts of the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Federal investigators have been looking into the business relationship between Element Group and ADS.

I don’t defend Bissonnette if his side deals were corrupt. But this is bullshit on several levels.

Of course, many people, including me, have noted that Bissonnette’s book was an attempt to push back on the information asymmetry — and with it, propaganda — that the government uses classification to pull off.

Prosecuting Bissonnette would require admitting that the government used its unilateral authority over the nation’s secrets to tell a fiction–not an egregious one, but still one that served a significant political objective.

Now there are probably legal ways around that problem (they could prosecute Bissonnette for revealing obscure details that no one really cares about, for example). But probably not political ways around it, because at best, it would seem like retaliation for exposing the Administration’s fluffing of the facts.

It appears that Bissonnette has shown that the Administration used its control over secrecy as a political tool, not just an operational one, and to prosecute him, they’d have to make that point even more clear.

In addition, as I noted in a series of posts, DOD did a lot of things that arguably violate classification laws to hide those trophy photos by retroactively classifying them and sending them over to CIA where they’d be further hidden from Judicial Watch and other FOIAs that had already been filed.

[I]f the photos were classified after their FOIA, they would have had to have been classified on a photo by photo basis by the Director of CIA, Deputy Director, or a Senior Agency Official in charge of classifications, the CIA responded by saying that, after the CIA got the photos (which by all appearances happened after the FOIA), they were derivatively classified in accordance with the SAO’s guidance.

CIA doesn’t say whether that official reviewed the photos individually or not. Nor does it explain who wrote “TOP SECRET” on them, without adding all the other required classification markers.

And note how the CIA claims these photos “were always considered to be classified” by them — but not necessarily by SOCOM, which originally had the photos. But they don’t even claim they were always considered to be Top Secret.

If I’m right about the DOD’s efforts to avoid its obligation under FOIA, then it basically went after Bissonnette for improperly handling classified information while it was doing the same thing (albeit to withhold previously unclassified information). Plus, if these photos were unauthorized, classifying them to hide them would amount to classification to hide misconduct.

Finally, whatever the ethical conflicts with Bissonnette’s side deals (they remain under investigation and it’s not clear there was a conflict, in which case this feels like DOJ’s pursuit of NSA whistleblowers Bill Binney et al for their effort to start a business), they’re being investigated at a time when the Intelligence Community has just eliminated some measures designed to facilitate oversight of precisely this kind of conflict. I sure take from that that the powers that be in our IC want to continue to engage in the kind of conflicted business deals that Bissonnette is being investigated for.

Here’s the irony though: I noted James Clapper had pushed that conflict change through, in part because it is so much work to ride herd on conflicts, even while accepting a requirement that his office increase its surveillance of line personnel. I concluded that Clapper has some really funny ideas about insider threats, finding abusive incompetents trading on their position to be less of a problem than leakers.

Clapper’s perfectly willing to expand his bureaucracy to look for leakers, but not to weed out the dangerously incompetent people ordering potential leakers around.

Bissonnette’s problem, I guess, is he was allegedly both, someone who shared information that undercut official propaganda, and someone who traded on his position.

Had he just done the latter everything would have been fine, I guess.

No Easy Day, WikiLeaks, and Mitt’s 47%: Three Different Approaches to Illicitly-Released Information

Last week, DOD issued a guidance memo instructing DOD personnel what they are–and are not–permitted to do with the Matt Bissonnettte book, No Easy Day, that they claim has sensitive and maybe even classified information. DOD personnel,

  • are free to purchase NED;
  • are not required to store NED in containers or areas approved for the storage of classified information, unless classified statements in the book have been identified;
  • shall not discuss potentially classified and sensitive unclassified information with persons who do not have an official need to know and an appropriate security clearance;
  • who possess either firsthand knowledge of, or suspect information within NED to be classified or sensitive, shall not publically speculate or discuss potentially classified or sensitive unclassified information outside official U.S. Government channels (e.g., Chain-of-Command, Public Affairs, Security, etc.);
  • are prohibited from using unclassified government computer systems to discuss potentially classified or sensitive contents ofNED, and must not engage in online discussions via social networking or media sites regarding potentially classified or sensitive unclassified information that may be contained in NED.

The memo points to George Little’s earlier flaccid claims that the book contains classified information as the basis for this policy, even though those claims fell far short of an assertion that there was actually classified information in the book.

The strategy behind this policy seems to be to accept the massive release of this information, while prohibiting people from talking about what information in the book is classified or sensitive–or even challenging Little’s half-hearted claim that it is classified. Moreover, few of the people bound by this memo know what the President insta-declassified to be able to tell his own version of the Osama bin Laden raid, so the memo also gags discussions about information that has likely been declassified, not to mention discussions about the few areas where Bissonnette’s version differs from the Administration’s official version.

Still, it does let people access the information and talk about it generally.

Compare that policy with the Administration’s three-prong approach to WikiLeaks information:

  • Government employees cannot discuss–and are not supposed to consult at all–WikiLeaks cables. The treatment of Peter Van Buren for–among other things–linking to some WikiLeaks cables demonstrates the lengths to which the government is willing to go to silence all discussion of the cables. (Though I imagine the surveillance of social media will be similar to enforce the DOD guidance.)
  • Gitmo lawyers not only cannot discuss material–like the dodgy intelligence cable that the government used to imprison Latif until he died of still undisclosed causes or the files that cite tortured confessions to incriminate other detainees–released by WikiLeaks unless the press speaks of them first. But unlike DOD personnel who do not necessarily have a need to know, Gitmo lawyers who do have a need to know couldn’t consult WikiLeaks except in closely controlled secure conditions.
  • The Government will refuse to release cables already released under FOIA. While to some degree, this strategy parallels the DOD approach–whereas the NED policy avoids identifying which is and is not classified information, the WikiLeaks policy avoids admitting that cables everyone knows are authentic are authentic, the policy also serves to improperly hide evidence of illegal activity through improper classification.

Now, one part of the Administration’s logic behind this approach to purportedly classified information (thus far without the legal proof in either case, or even a legal effort to prove in the case of Bissonnette) is to limit discussion of information that was allegedly released via illegal means. Read more

DOD Gets Awfully Sensitive When They’re Cornered

Just about every outlet that reported on George Little’s whine about Matt Bissonnette’s book yesterday claimed that Little had said there was “classified” information in the book.[all emphasis in this post mine]

CNN: A Pentagon official said Tuesday that a former Navy SEAL who helped kill Osama bin Laden included classified material in his new book and did not follow protocol for pre-publication review.

AP: George Little said that an official review of the book, “No Easy Day,” determined that it reveals what he called “sensitive and classified” information.

ABC: Top Pentagon officials said today that a controversial firsthand accountof the nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden written by a former U.S. Navy SEAL reveals classified information and could endanger other special operations servicemen.

Fox: “Sensitive and classified information is contained in the book,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters in Washington. “It is the height of irresponsibility not to have this material checked.”

The reality is far more telling. Little did not commit to saying there was classified information in the book until cornered after repeated questions by the press. The transcript is worth reviewing in more detail since, if this ever gets litigated, Little’s hesitation to claim the book included classified information will become an issue.

In response to the first question on Bissonnette’s book, Little gave what was probably his rehearsed answer to it. He focused on Bissonnette’s failure to do a prepublication review (remember, Bissonnette’s lawyer, Bob Luskin, says such a review was recommended but not required). And when discussing the actual review, Little said there was sensitive information; only later, speaking more generally, did Little say “sensitive and classified.”

George, on the separate issue, on the SEAL book, has the department made a decision yet on whether to take any legal action regarding this and on whether or not there is classified material in the book, and if there — if, indeed, you’ve determined there is, can you tell us what it is and what action may or may not be taken at this point?

MR. LITTLE: Thank you very much, Lita, for that question. We continue to review our options when it comes to legal accountability for what in our estimation is a material breach of nondisclosure agreements that were signed by the author of this book.

With respect to the information that’s contained in the book, people inside the department have read it. And we do have concerns about some of the sensitive information that we believe is contained in it. I’m not going to get out ahead of what the process going forward might be and what options we might decide to pursue, but this is a very serious concern that we have.

When it comes to sensitive special operations missions, such as the operation that took down Osama bin Laden, it is important that those who are involved in such operations take care to protect sensitive and classified information. And 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. That is common sense. It’s a no-brainer. And it did not happen.

Thus far into the process, the press wasn’t buying Little’s slight of hand. He gets a followup on the sensitive/classified distinction, which he dodges by focusing on pre-publication review again.

Q: Will you — just as a follow-up — you made a distinction between sensitive and classified. So is the determination that it is sensitive information there and not classified? And also, is there any determination on whether the book will be sold on — on bases (off mic)

MR. LITTLE: There’s been no directive from this department to withhold sale of the book from military exchanges. This book is being made widely available in bookstores and online. It is not our typical practice to get into the business of deciding what and what does not go on bookshelves in military exchanges. But that doesn’t mean in any way, shape or form that we don’t have serious concerns about the fact that this process of pre-publication review was not followed.

Read more

Matt Bissonnette’s Information Operation Against a Broken System of Secrecy

“We all knew the deal. We were tools in the toolbox, and when things go well they promote it. They inflate their roles.” –Mark Bissonnette

HuffPo and AP/CBS have an initial description of how Matt Bissonnette’s story of the Osama bin Laden killing differs from the story the Administration has told. While the details are interesting, I expect we can learn as much about how a well-trained SEAL manages InfoOps as we learn about the events of Bissonnette’s life from the book.

As I pointed out yesterday, once DOD got a copy of the book, the publisher announced it would almost double the initial print run and advance the publication date by a week–making it much harder for DOD to pre-empt the unredacted publication by buying up the copies. Bissonnette has also already planned to give at least some of the proceeds of the book to the families of SEALs who have died (something that former CIA officer Ishmael Jones also did), meaning DOD can’t punish him by seizing his earnings.

And now, with just the bits of information already public about the book, Bissonnette has made it very difficult for the government to prosecute him–and certainly not before the election.

The most interesting detail that both HuffPo and AP report is that Osama bin Laden never put up a fight.

“We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots. BOP. BOP,” writes Owen. “I couldn’t tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not. The man disappeared into the dark room.”

Team members took their time entering the room, where they saw the women wailing over Bin Laden, who wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, loose tan pants and a tan tunic, according to the book.

Despite numerous reports that bin Laden had a weapon and resisted when Navy SEALs entered the room, he was unarmed, writes Owen. He had been fatally wounded before they had entered the room.

“Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull” and he was still twitching and convulsing, Owen writes. While bin Laden was in his death throes, Owen writes that he and another SEAL “trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.”

While I’m sure there are many details that are of greater tactical sensitivity, this one differs just enough from the previously official version that it makes it toxic to pursue. After all, prosecuting Bissonnette would require acknowledging that Bissonnette violated his non-disclosure agreement, which would in turn requiring admitting to the truth of what he presents in his book. Read more

Admiral McRaven: Taxpayers Should Learn about Special Operations from Hollywood Movies

Most of the coverage of Admiral William McRaven’s letter to the special operations community telling them to shut up has focused on McRaven’s insinuation that the recent flurry of activity stems entirely from a desire for personal or political gain. But I find McRaven’s comments about what forms of publicity about special ops are appropriate just as interesting (thanks to Josh Rogin for linking a copy).

McRaven notes the importance of books on special operations as a learning tool.

Few senior SOF officers have benefited more from reading about the exploits of our legendary heroes than I. My thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School was based on a rigorous examination of the available literature, without which I could never have written my book on “The Theory of Special Operations.”

Most of these books were wonderful accounts of courage, leadership, tough decision making, and martial skill all of which benefited me as I tried to understand of our past and how it could affect missions in the future.

And he suggests that movies “provide public insights into life in special operations … that can’t be garnered anywhere else.”

Movies that portray the heroics of service members are also well worth watching and often provide the public insights into life in special operations or the service that can’t be garnered anywhere else.

Personally, I was motivated to join special operations after watching the movie, “The Green Berets”, starring John Wayne. To this day my Army brethren still wonder where I went wrong…

Countless stories have been told through the medium of film that needed to be told and I am thankful that they were.

Now, I’m grateful that McRaven has criticized OPSEC’s attempt to politicize the Osama bin Laden raid (though it does suggest a double standard). But these comments are rather troubling.

First, note that McRaven’s thesis depends on at least two first person narratives of special ops soldiers–those of Otto Skorzeny and Jonathan Netanyahu (though Netanyahu’s consists of his letters published after his death). So McRaven’s citation of his thesis hardly discredits Matt Bissonnette’s decision to publish his own first person account of his SEAL exploits.

I’m even more troubled by McRaven’s suggestion that we should turn to Hollywood to learn of stories “that need[] to be told.”

One reason he may do so is to legitimize the Administration’s cooperation with the Zero Dark Thirty team. If the Commander of SOCOM suggests Hollywood is the proper venue for special ops stories, it serves to distinguish the Administration’s push for publicity for the Osama bin Laden raid from that of the SEALs. (Though since Bissonnette’s already  shopping his book, I expect McRaven’s position on movies may soon change.)

Of course, in doing so McRaven also suggests that fictional stories are all taxpayers should learn about these “stories that need to be told.” Not just fictional ones, either, but sensational ones. The better to inspire a future head of SOCOM to join the military, just like John Wayne did for McRaven!

Of course, that says taxpayers should only have a false understanding of the wars being fought in their names, which is a profoundly contemptuous view. I have no idea whether Bissonnette’s narrative will be accurate (the Pentagon has gotten a copy and is reading it now, so they may seize it before we get to see). But if it is accurate, why should a Hollywood movie be a more valid telling of the OBL story than the kind of firsthand account McRaven himself has relied upon?

Plus, by endorsing sensational Hollywood narratives, McRaven effectively endorses the kind of special ops hero that would, himself, seek publicity. You can’t have Hollywood serve as the legitimate venue for discussing special operations without feeding the system that would lead a SEAL to want to write his own book and sell the rights to Steven Spielberg. Hollywood created the market for such books; you can’t expect veterans not to feed it.

If the Commander of SOCOM believes the stories of special ops need to be told, then he should declassify them so they can be told in a format that is factual, sober, and complete. This endorsement of Hollywood flicks–while it may serve the Administration’s immediate interests–makes the Administration’s abuse of information asymmetry even worse. It defends not only the Administration getting exclusive control over how to the tell the stories, but suggests it should do so using fictional and sensational means.