Four years after a former Navy SEAL was threatened with prison for writing about the Osama bin Laden raid, the Pentagon has dropped its claim that Matt Bissonnette revealed secrets harmful to national security.
Bissonnette, who wrote No Easy Day under the pen name “Mark Owen,” will have to forfeit more than $6.7 million in book earnings for writing the tell-all, first-person story of the 2011 mission without the Pentagon’s pre-publication review—a violation of military nondisclosure agreements, according to a settlement finalized Friday. He’ll also have to pay the U.S. government back $1.3 million for his legal fees, which he’d paid out of his book earnings.
“After the initial accusations of me leaking all that classified stuff…they found nothing,” Bissonnette told The Daily Beast. “They were just upset with me and wanted to get me one way or another. For four years, they looked into every little thing. Now…one signature and it all goes away,” he said.
“Granted, I’ll have to write a bunch of big checks, and I’ll be about a million and a half in debt,” he added dryly.
The deal closes a controversial chapter for the Obama administration, which was criticized for taking legal action against a SEAL who risked his life for the mission, when so many administration officials had already publicly described the raid that killed the top al Qaeda leader in detail. Obama officials had even gave Zero Dark Thirty filmmaker Katherine Bigelow unprecedented access to interview top intelligence officers to craft her film, which Republican lawmakers charged was done in part to help President Obama win re-election in 2012.
“Bissonnette has agreed to pay the United States all of his past and future proceeds from the publication of No Easy Day” as part of the agreement, said Justice Department spokesman Nicole Navas. That includes $100,000 in speaking fees for speeches Bissonnette gave using slides the government had not approved.
“This enforcement action does not discredit Mr. Bissonnette’s military service, but reinforces that it is important for our service members....to protect classified information after leaving the U.S. military and government in an effort to protect our nation’s national security,” she added in an email, referring to the consent decree filed Friday in the Eastern District Court of Virginia.
Left unsaid is that the government has dropped any claim that Bissonette’s book contains classified information.
It’s a far cry from the original August 2012 letter by then Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, which said the Department of Defense concluded that the author is in “material breach and violation” of the agreements to protect classified information, implying the book had revealed classified information.
“That’s the dog that didn’t bark,” said Bissonnette’s Washington, D.C.-based litigator, Robert Luskin. “When they heard him out and they made an extensive review of what they thought might be classified, I think they decided the right result was to walk away from that,” he told The Daily Beast of the Pentagon legal team’s settlement.
The settlement did require the bin Laden-raider-turned-author to issue a public apology for failing to seek permission for what he disclosed: “Unfortunately, the advice I got—that I did not need to submit the book for pre-publication review—was wrong,” Bissonnette wrote in his statement. “I acknowledge my mistake and have paid a stiff price—personally and financially, for that error.”
Defense officials did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Most of the money Bissonnette has to repay has been sitting in an account set up when the government launched legal action after his book was published by Penguin imprint Dutton Books in September 2012.
He’ll have four years to come up with the $1.3 million to repay the government what he’s paid to his defense team. His lawyer Luskin said it could have been worse. The government allowed the publisher, book agent Elyse Cheney, and co-author Kevin Maurer (a Daily Beast contributor) to keep their earnings, instead of forcing Bissonnette to pay those too.
“I think it’s a fair result,” Luskin said. “It’s a harsh result from a financial perspective…but he owns what he did.”
It’s the third and final legal hurdle, after the government abandoned two previous attempts to bring cases against Bissonnette—including one that Luskin said accused him of violating the espionage act by allegedly disclosing classified information in No Easy Day.
“The government came back to us in August 2015 to say they were closing the investigation and made determination that he didn’t violate criminal law,” Luskin said.
They also declined to prosecute Bissonnette in a second case that accused him of profiting illegally when he was paid as a consultant to a video game company, while he was still on active duty at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six.
Bissonnette is pushing ahead with a legal case of his own, against the original former special operations attorney who advised him that he didn’t need to seek a pre-publication review from the Pentagon. Bissonette’s Dallas-based malpractice lawyer Randy Johnston said he expects to take former Army lawyer Kevin Podlaski to trial in 2017, for wrongly advising the SEAL that he could publish without submitting the manuscript to the Pentagon first.
“He is now claiming he never said he’d vet the book, though his contract with Bissonnette and emails that followed say otherwise,” Johnston said in an interview about the ongoing legal action.
Podlaski’s New York-based lawyer Mike Furman emailed to say, “We are aggressively defending these allegations in court.”
Bissonnette sought and got prepublication review from the Pentagon for his second book, No Hero, published by Penguin in 2014. “Yeah, it was my bad,” a contrite Bissonnette told The Daily Beast at the time of his failure to submit his first book for review.
If the point of the government’s exercise was to make Bissonnette an example of what can happen for speaking of top secret operations without prior permission, it worked.
“I’d rather go back overseas and fight this country’s worst enemies rather than go into another room full of bullshit lawyers,” he said with some feeling.
The Navy SEAL Command essentially declared him persona non grata, including a missive in 2014 from then-commander Rear Adm. Brian Losey.
“We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain,” Losey wrote in a widely reported memo to the force.
“Any vet has earned the right to tell his story. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done,” Bissonnette counters.
Bissonnette is still bitter about what he sees as a double standard, which allowed senior administration officials like CIA Director Panetta to make money from his own book, which spends a few chapters describing the bin Laden raid. Seeing Panetta introduce movie director Bigelow to his SEAL Team Six commander at a closed CIA event was what originally got Bissonnette thinking that the operators should tell their own story.
While Panetta got to keep his profits, Bissonnette said he intended to give his to charity, and remain anonymous. He was named first by Fox News, and then by other reporters including this one, resulting in an infamy he never intended.
“Yeah, I’m the asshole who wrote the book…but I hope I’ve proven I wasn’t trying to get famous,” he said. “I still don’t advertise. I still don’t show my face. I still use the name Mark Owen, and make people call me Mark at speaking events.”
And he’s continued to volunteer for charities, including being one of the guest special operators competing at “The Great Americans Shoot,” held annually by the Special Forces Charitable Trust, according the charity’s executive director, David Guernsey. “He was the captain of the top fundraising team for the last two years,” helping raise more than $2 million in two events, Guernsey said.
Bissonnette said the people who count to him haven’t shut him out.
“The ones I hang out with have always been my friends, and they are still my friends,” he said.
“Every knucklehead who goes on TV…and goes on about me violating a code, I’ve never met.”
He is hoping any lasting stigma will fade with the conclusion of his legal troubles, especially with so many other SEALs now profiting from their time in service, like Robert O’Neill, who claims to have killed Bin Laden. (Bissonnette disputes his account, saying a third still-unidentified SEAL in the dark hallway took the kill shot.)
Bissonnette said he is still coping with an injury from that 2011 raid, suffered when the helicopter he was in crash-landed inside Bin Laden’s compound. He said the Department of Veterans Affairs gave him medication but wouldn't perform surgery for a serious neck injury, so a former Air Force surgeon he met at a speaking event has performed two surgeries for free. (VA officials said Bissonnette would have to fill out privacy release forms to allow them to comment on his case, as per U.S. law regarding patient privacy rights.)
To earn a living, the former SEAL is now launching a start-up he declined to describe, and says he’s glad this chapter is over. He accepts his responsibility, but this one’s gonna hurt for some time to come.
“When I left the military, I got a plaque with my name misspelled, shitty medical care, and now I’m a million dollars in debt,” he said with frustration. “Thank you for your service.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with comment from the Justice Department and Veterans Administration.