In the closed and close-knit world of current and retired U.S. Special Operations officers, the news that an unauthorized account of the 2011 Navy SEALs raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was coming to bookstores next month hit like a ton of bricks.
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.”
McRaven also issued a veiled warning to the author: “Every member of the special-operations community with a security clearance signed a non-disclosure agreement that was binding during and after service in the military. If the U.S. Special Operations Command finds that an active-duty, retired or former service member violated that agreement and that exposure of information was detrimental to the safety of U.S. forces, then we will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution where appropriate.”
On Internet forums the special-ops community maintains to discuss their craft, the common response, according to two participants, was: “WTF.” “I am on a few list-servs,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “This topic has been a heavy and heated discussion with almost everyone asking WTF?”
The reason for the shock and outrage is that inside the world of the SEALs—the Navy’s premier Sea, Air and Land Team force that conducts sensitive missions that are rarely disclosed to the public—talking out of turn is almost never done. While other elements of the U.S. intelligence community has been wracked by leaks from insiders and turncoats like ex-CIA officer Philip Agee, the SEALs throughout their 51-year history have avoided such embarrassing disclosures. This is because the elite officers who comprise the secret SEAL Team Six practice a Mafia-like code of Omerta. In the case of the handful of books written about the SEALs, anything published was reviewed by the Pentagon to scrub the texts of any classified information.
This was not the case for No Easy Day. The book is set to be released on Sept. 11 and is written by a member of the team that killed the al Qaeda mastermind. The author requested he be published under the pseudonym, Mark Owen. On Thursday however, Fox News reported that the author was actually Matt Bissonnette, a 36-year-old from Alaska. The identity of the author could not be independently confirmed. A spokesman for the Navy’s Special Operations Command declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the publisher of the book, Penguin Imprint, Dutton, said the book was vetted by a former special-operations attorney provided to the publishing house by the author. It was not, however, reviewed by the military, according to Pentagon spokesmen.
This is important, according to Don Mann, a former member of SEAL Team Six and the author of the book Inside SEAL Team Six, because any kind of information to identify the people in the team, the location of its compound, or any other details could be used by terrorists to target the families of the SEALs.
“I know for a fact, if somebody said SEAL Team Six is located where they are located, and (the enemy) knew nothing else, it would take a week to figure out where the schools are around that team, where the bars are and the neighborhoods that are around that team,” Mann said.
Mann said he himself was offered lucrative book contracts after the bin Laden raid to write about the illustrious team he served with, and he refused. “As soon as bin Laden was killed, it was known I was a member,” he said. “I got three lucrative offers. I told them, ‘What I know you would want to know, I am not going to let you know. When you leave the compound, you leave the secrets there.’” Mann eventually did write his book about the SEALs, but it was published only after he cleared it with the military’s publication-review board. It was published in December.
The press release for No Easy Day says the author “honors the men who risk everything for our country, and he leaves readers with a deep understanding of the warriors who keep America safe.”
But Carstens said the unauthorized book about the SEALs violates a basic code practiced by almost all special-operations forces. “I used to run the Special Forces qualification course,” Carstens said. In that course, he said he instilled the virtue of being “quiet professionals.”
“We let our actions speak louder than words, this also means we take our commitments seriously like our commitment to honor our non-disclosure agreements. This is why most of us are just stunned right now.”