Former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette is sorry for publishing a tell-all book about the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—without first seeking a government security review.
He wants you to know that’s a mistake he did not repeat with his new book, No Hero.
“Yeah, it was my bad,” a contrite Bissonnette said multiple times in multiple ways in an interview with The Daily Beast of his failure to submit No Easy Day to be checked for classified information because of what he called “bad legal advice.” With a criminal investigation ongoing, he could still face prosecution for it.
“Do I have regret? Yes, but I gotta look at this as a lesson,” he said. “In our community, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”
And that’s why he said he wrote the new book, to share hard lessons learned on the battlefield, this time with the Pentagon’s permission—and to prove that he would have done it this way the first time, had he known better.
That’s still not likely to win back many of his former comrades in arms, like his former SEAL Team 6 commanding officer, whom Bissonnette was told kept a mock tombstone in his headquarters office with the shunned SEAL author’s name on it.
“They don’t call it SEAL Team 6-Year-Old for nothing,” Bissonnette said bitterly of the rejection by a man who up until then had given him top performance reviews and tried to persuade him not to leave the Navy after the Bin Laden raid in 2011.
Bissonnette believes it was some of his own former teammates who revealed his real name to Fox News, which first reported it after the release of No Easy Day. (Other reporters, including this one, named him after that.)
He said he still wishes the media would stick to his author pseudonym Mark Owen, as he has gotten death threats online and tries to keep his real face off-camera.
But he said he now understands the Pandora’s box he opened that made him a public figure when he penned an unauthorized account of the raid, together with his co-author, Kevin Maurer.
U.S. officials are still considering prosecuting him under criminal charges for allegedly purposefully avoiding a security review and revealing classified information.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrickfrost would only say that an investigation into No Easy Day is still ongoing. “It would be inappropriate to get into any specifics—about the timing or other aspects of the investigation—at this stage,” she wrote in an email Friday. “This includes who is leading the investigation or what type of investigation is ongoing.”
Bissonnette’s current lawyer, high-profile Washington attorney Robert Luskin of Patton Boggs LLP, said the SEAL author was given bad legal counsel the first time around by someone “who he thought was expert in this area of classification and prepublication review.”
Luskin said the former SEAL proved his good faith by volunteering to stop promoting No Easy Day after the initial 60 Minutes interview—like the second one Sunday to promote No Hero—and by setting aside the book royalties pending resolution of the legal case.
Luskin had already reached a settlement with the Pentagon on potential civil claims, now “temporarily on hold” while Bissonnette cooperates with a criminal investigation.
“We realized failure to submit the book for review raised legitimate questions about his conduct. ... And we’re doing everything we can to answer their questions,” Luskin said.
“It’s a mistake for which both emotionally and financially he has and will pay very dearly,” he added, though the lawyer believes he will be able to wrap up a settlement on both potential civil and criminal charges by year’s end.
Bissonnette’s admission of error won’t likely earn him a place back in the mostly close-mouthed Navy SEAL community, however, where he is still paying for the sin of publishing the account of the top-secret, CIA-run operation.
“There are people in the community who aren’t talking to me anymore,” he said, especially active-duty SEALs who fear their careers would be ended if caught communicating with him.
He speaks with wistful bitterness of how in the aftermath of No Easy Day’s publication, he reached out to that SEAL Team 6 commander who fashioned the fake headstone to explain that he’d never intended to put out anything that would endanger his teammates.
The Navy captain responded to the text from Bissonnette with the words, “Delete me.”
Ahead of the publication of his latest book, the current head of all Navy SEALs, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, repeated that sentiment in a letter (PDF) to the community that seemed timed for Bissonnette’s 60 Minutes appearance this weekend—and the advertised appearance of a SEAL who calls himself “The Shooter” who is slated to appear talking about the raid on Fox News later this month.
“A critical [tenet] of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work nor seek recognition for my actions,’” says the letter obtained by The Daily Beast, signed by both Losey and the SEAL Force Master Chief M.L. Magaraci.
“Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare. We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service.”
The letter goes on to say “All members exposed to classified information have a duty to protect this information, regardless of what may be reflected in the media, accurately or otherwise,” and finishes by saying the command will seek judicial consequences against those who “willfully violate the law and place our teammates, our families and potential future operations at risk.”
For Bissonnette, it seems confusing and hypocritical.
Former CIA and Pentagon chief Leon Panetta and top Pentagon intelligence chief Michael Vickers were both exposed for presumably White House-sanctioned cooperation with the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicled the raid.
And former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle—now lost to a stateside shooting—wrote a book about his exploits in Iraq, as did former SEAL Rorke Denver, star of the Naval Special Warfare-sanctioned movie Act of Valor.
Neither of them were “PNG’d” by the community, he said.
But those works went through some form of review, or socialization with the SEAL command, before publication—and both Panetta and Vickers drew intense political fire from Republican circles for talking of the raid.
“Every SEAL I know read a book and that’s why they became a SEAL. SEALs in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq were writing books,” Bissonnette said “So I don’t buy it when the old crusty dudes say ‘Nobody should be talking. We’re silent professionals.’ So don’t sponsor a movie where people are talking about it!” he said, his voice rising in frustration.
Bissonnette’s latest book is a “here’s how it happened” chapter-by-chapter summary of the highlights, and sometimes lowlights of his decade-plus career as a SEAL. It includes more detail about his humble Alaskan roots and how he was inspired to become a SEAL after reading Rogue Warrior, by Vietnam veteran and SEAL Team 6 founder Richard “Dick” Marcinko—who was also shunned by many in his community for writing a book.
The Pentagon security reviewers must have been suffering a dearth of caffeine or sleep. Bissonnette’s book is chock-full of blacked-out lines of text showing that Pentagon censors had their way with the manuscript, but somewhat sloppily, deleting whole pages to remove references to what was apparently a joint U.S.-Pakistan military operation inside Pakistan. But they left in the word “PAKMIL”—an abbreviation for the Pakistani military—and references to the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar.
Other deletions are easy to guess, like when they black out the number in “SEAL Team XXX”
Bissonnette will keep the money from No Hero—though he intends to give the lion’s share of the royalties from No Easy Day to charity after paying his legal bills.
Prominent Navy SEAL charities have spurned his money, saying they now don’t want it, but many non-military charities have embraced Bissonnette’s willingness to give back.
He turned a cancer fundraiser last year into “the most successful event we’ve ever had,” according to Matt George, then-executive director of the Hult Center for Healthy Living, in Peoria, Ill.
Though the SEAL author was spooked about showing the small crowd his real face, George said he took the risk and spoke about lessons learned in war that apply back home, while tirelessly handing out books the charity had bought for him to sign.
He gave one to two young children whose mother is dying of Stage 4 breast cancer, George said.
When the children later came up on stage to get an award honoring their mom, Bissonnette presented it, and hugged the kids, telling them and the crowd, “Your mom’s the real fighter.”
“I got chills,” George said, and just about everyone in the room teared up.
The SEAL community may not welcome Bissonnette back, but the American public sees him as one of the men who got Bin Laden, and if No Easy Day’s book sales are any indication, they want him to keep telling stories.
No Hero and No Easy Day are published by Penguin Group (USA)'s Dutton imprint.