Outcry Over SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s Bin Laden Book Reveals Pentagon Hypocrisy
Our president has promised to bring those who killed our diplomats in Libya to justice.
This almost certainly means that special operators such as Seal Team 6 are even now poised for action.
In preparing to be deployed, they no doubt are following what the controversial book, No Easy Day, by Matt Bissonnette (writing as Mark Owen), terms “Big Boy Rules.” The author says he learned the basic principle behind these rules after receiving a six-page, single-spaced official itemization of what to bring on his first deployment to Afghanistan with SEAL Team 6.
“The suggested packing list basically told us to bring everything,” he says.
He went to his new team leader. “Dude, what do you think you need to bring for deployment?” the team leader asked. “Bring what you think you need.”
The book cites this as an example of the “Big Boy Rules” that guide the team.
“Which means there wasn’t a lot of management unless you needed it,” the book says.
In more recent, decidedly not easy days, Bissonnette, a former SEAL turned author, has been getting a lesson in Bigger Boy Rules. These rules hold that bigger boys can take others to task for what they do themselves.
Another word for this is hypocrisy. A prime recent example was provided this week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when he condemned the former for revealing operational details in No Easy Day. Panetta’s remarks were broadcast on Sept. 11, as we observed the 11th anniversary of 9/11. It also was the day our diplomats were killed in Libya and incensed mob in Cairo was chanting, “We are all Osama!”
Panetta said, “I think when somebody talks about the particulars of how those operations are conducted, what that does is tell our enemies essentially how we operate and what we do to go after them. And, when you do that, you tip them off.”
Panetta clearly excludes the particulars that both the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency provided to screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in preparing their upcoming film about the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Panetta was director of the CIA at the time the agency allowed the makers of Zero Dark Thirty what the agency’s spokeswoman described in an inter-office email as “deep dives” into operational matters that included meeting such individuals as “a translator who was on the raid.”
The CIA spokeswoman at the time, Marie Harf, who is now with the Obama campaign, said in the inter-office emails that Boal was given “full-on CTC treatment,” the CTC being the Counter Terrorism Center. She said all the extraordinary access was being accorded “with the full knowledge and support of Director Panetta.”
Harf recommended that the agency assist this project over one proposed by writer Howard Blum because “it makes sense to get behind the winning horse.”
“Mark and Kathryn’s movie is going to be the first and the biggest,” Harf wrote. “It’s got the most money behind it and two Oscar winners on board.”
The then CIA director of public affairs, George Little, replied that while “nobody’s talking about full-on CTC treatment” for Blum, there should be “some CIA treatment.”
“I don’t think anyone disagrees that we should place most of our betting money on the Boal project at this point,” Little wrote.
Little remained mindful of PR Rules, as they pertain to a three-letter agency of another kind, which represents Blum: “We have to do our due diligence with others, and it doesn’t hurt to establish stronger relationships with CAA and others, even if their projects don’t move forward.”
The Department of Defense also accorded the filmmakers some deep diving, as is made clear in the transcript of a July 14, 2011 meeting Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers had with Boal and Bigelow. Vickers said he could give them a “roadmap” of how the raid came to be launched. He described watching the SEALs rehearse at a mock-up of the bin Laden compound.
Vickers told the filmmakers that the commanders of the special operators, Admirals William McRaven and Eric Olson, “do not want to talk directly, because that’s just bad.”
“They’re just concerned as commanders of the force and they're telling them all the time—don't you dare talk to anybody, that it's just a bad example if it gets out,” Vickers said.
Vickers went on to say, “The basic idea is they’ll make a guy available who was involved from the beginning as a planner, a SEAL Team 6 operator and commander.”
Vickers gave the filmmakers a name that would be redacted from the transcript of the meeting that the conservative organization Judicial Watch obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“He basically can probably give you everything you would want or would get from Admiral Olson or Admiral McRaven,” Vickers said
“That's dynamite,” Boal said.
“That's incredible,” Bigelow said.
“And so, he'll speak for operators and he'll speak for senior military commanders, because they’re all the same tribe and everything, and so you should get most of what you need from him,” Vickers said. “Now, again the reason Admiral Olson and Admiral McRaven didn't want to talk is this command conflict of interest.”
Vickers goes on, “The only thing we ask is that you not reveal his name in any way as a consultant, because then again, it’s the same thing, he shouldn't be talking out of school. This at least, this gives him one step removed and he knows what he can and can't say, but this way at least he can be as open as he can with you and it ought to meet your needs and give you lots of color.”
“Fabulous,” Bigelow says.
“That’s dynamite,” Boal says, again.
This July 14, 2011 meeting came just as Panetta was leaving the CIA to succeed Robert Gates as secretary of defense. Little was going with him to become Pentagon press secretary. He wrote in an email as he departed that Boal and Bigelow had finished an outline and were “starting to do a deeper dive on details.”
“They expressed their gratitude for our cooperation,” he wrote, also saying, “A good way to wrap things up!”
By then, the whole special operations tribe, SEAL Team 6 included, was aware that the Department of Defense and the CIA were giving Boal and Bigelow remarkable access.
And then there was that other movie, Act of Valor, in which active-duty SEALs actually appeared. A team of six SEALs parachuted onto the red carpet of the film’s premiere. Act of Valor went on to gross $70 million, or roughly 70,000 times the monthly disability payment to a seriously wounded SEAL.
And then there’s the upcoming book about the bin Laden raid by Mark Bowden, esteemed author of Black Hawk Down. A writer of Bowden’s caliber was hardly going to tell such a tale without considerable details.
At one point, someone who knows Bowden is said to have asked the future “Mark Owen” if he would speak to the author. The SEAL Team 6 member declined. He subsequently decided to leave the Navy and write his own book with the help of a journalist, Kevin Maurer.
In No Easy Day, the author recounts the team’s surprise at all the leaks in the immediate aftermath of the raid. He also recounts an encounter with Big Boy Rules, when team members were called into the same conference room where they had originally been told that they were going after bin Laden. They were warned not to speak to the media.
“I was astonished,” the author remembers. “We’d kept this whole thing under wraps for weeks. Now, Washington was leaking everything, and we were going to get the lecture for it.”
He does not seem to have written the book hoping for riches, for he said from the start he intended to give most of the proceeds to charities that benefit SEALs. And he could not have been seeking fame, for he used a pseudonym. He got another lesson in leaks when it was almost immediately reported that his real name is Matt Bissonette. He now finds himself perpetually threatened by those who play by no rules at all.
Panetta refrained from using Mark Owen’s real name, and did express some concern for the former SEAL’s safety. And Panetta was not entirely hypocritical in pointing out that Owen had signed an agreement on becoming a SEAL that he would clear any book with the Pentagon prior to publication.
Some of the more traditional members of the Special Forces community fault Owen for not having done so, even though the organizations charged with doing the clearing are the same ones that were according filmmakers’ “deep dives” into operational details. These traditionalists argue that two wrongs do not make a right.
That said, nobody below the rank of Bigger Boy is complaining that the book reveals any significant operational secrets. And anyone should be able to understand Owen’s distress on seeing that whoever was leaking about the raid was getting some important details wrong.
Was he supposed to let those inaccuracies stand, to allow skewed versions of the history that he and his teammates helped make in course of a life of continual sacrifice?
And how faulted can he be for not clearing his book with folks who decide what projects to “bet” on based on which one has a big budget and two Oscar winners?
How much editorial authority should be given to those who want to keep things cool between the CIA and CAA?
In their hearts, the special operations commanders must know that giving a good example means actually being one, not just getting around your own tenets by using a shill to “talk out of school.”
The filmmakers reportedly never actually got a chance to speak with the SEAL planner; maybe the admirals were playing a double game on their civilian bosses.
In No Easy Day, the author says that after the raid the SEALs “simply wanted to fade back into the shadows and go back to work.” Their lips were SEALed, as it were.
Most likely, there would have been no book if there had not been so many leaks early on, if the Bigger Boys had just played by the rules they themselves set forth.
In the end, the Boal and Bigelow movie might be even better than their remarkable The Hurt Locker, which told of a war too many of us forgot even as it was being fought.
And, Bowden’s book might top Black Hawk Down, which made us appreciate the bravery and sacrifices of those who fought in a battle we hardly noticed.
But in this ongoing war with Muslim extremists who really do believe they are Osamas, the SEALs and the other special operators who deliver justice by following the Big Boy Rules should not have to fret that they will be betrayed by some small-minded Bigger Boys.