I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the recent revelations of the various SEALs on the UBL mission, and for the most part, I’ve brushed them off, feeling somewhat hypocritical because, while I’m not a supporter of what they’re doing, I write fiction novels. Even though there is no comparison, I felt like it wasn’t my place to comment, but, with the latest interviews, I’ve had enough. I want to present why such things matter, and give a little inside skinny on what’s occurring.
I do feel very strongly about the revelations, for reasons you’ll see below, and make no mistake, the interviews are structured in such a way as to make the speaker look like the poor, beleaguered commando who just had no choice. The underdog who’s fighting for the truth without any thought of profit for themselves. Which isn’t accurate. They had a choice, and they made it. And I don’t mean they broke some ridiculous fraternal commando code that has no effect in the real world. If that were it, I wouldn’t care, but they – and those that follow behind, using them as inspiration – can actually harm our national security, something that appears to be lost in the debate. And they did so for personal gain. I don’t say that as a bitter Army SF guy aggravated at them talking just because their jaws are moving. This isn’t about service – or even unit – rivalries. The truth is in their very own words and deeds.
Whenever I read about Matt Bissonette’s revelations, and now Rob O’neill’s, there are three main defenses, and all of them are ridiculous. I’d like to take them on one at a time.
1. I read the book/saw the interview, and he didn’t give anything up classified.
Whenever I hear this, the first thing I think is, “How in the hell would you know?” The very reason things are classified is to ensure they remain secret. If you heard a secret, and didn’t understand it was secret, how would you know?
There’s no way anyone not read-on to the mission – civilian or prior military – could read the book and determine if there was anything classified in it. NO WAY. It’s humorous that Bissonette is now suing his lawyer for “bad advice” because the lawyer supposedly told him he’d read the book and determined it was good to go. Really? So, Matt spent years in a unit where he wasn’t allowed to tell even his wife what he was doing, spent every mission being restrained from saying anything that had happened to even his closest relatives, and now had written a book that would expose the most famous classified mission in recent history to the GLOBE and he thought that was okay? Because a lawyer who supposedly had a clearance said it was acceptable? Sorry. That dog don’t hunt. Matt knew better. The lawyer’s security clearance is just that: Clearance to read classified information. It doesn’t give him omnipotent ability to DETERMINE classified. It’s comparable to having a driver’s license. You’re cleared to drive a car, but if a man pulled up and said, “Tell me where this car has been”, you’d say, “I have no idea. I’m allowed to drive it, but I can’t tell you where it’s been just by looking at it”.
On top of that, the very reason there is a clearance procedure within the department of defense is precisely because even Matt himself doesn’t understand what is harmful to American interests. Having lived in that world, you’re exposed to a ton of stuff that doesn’t have any real meaning to your mission, but if revealed could be detrimental to missions that you didn’t even know were being conducted. It’s why there is a review process. So that someone else, who DOES know, can read what you’ve written and see if it has an impact. I know of instances in books and press reports that could have a definite impact right now. They haven’t yet, but the information is out there, and if anyone makes the connection, it would be detrimental. The guy who wrote it didn’t do it because he was evil. He did it the same way Matt did: He didn’t know what he was giving up. It was secret, even to him.
I can’t give out specifics, but let me put out a hypothetical: I write a book about my exploits, and include photos. In the thirty pictures I put in, all innocuous because I’m by God not going to give up classified, I have one with me getting an award or some other crap from years ago. In the crowd is a man that I’ve never met, but he’s in my room, with a bunch of other Special Forces types. Unbeknownst to me, that man is now, ten years later, doing work on behalf of the United States acting as a nerdy computer salesman in a hostile country. One look at that picture, and he’s blown, captured and tortured because of the associations with my book. I had no intention of doing that, but I just DON’T KNOW what I don’t know. It’s why books are vetted. It’s why someone other than the author needs to look at the manuscript.
This very scenario played out in Vietnam when Nick Rowe was captured. He was an SF officer, and had managed to convince the Viet Cong that he was a lowly engineer. His hometown newspaper did a glowing article on his POW status, describing his Special Forces training. Anti-war idiots visited Hanoi and handed the enemy the article, and Nick Rowe came very close to being killed, actually escaping captivity while he was being led away for execution. That newspaper certainly had no intention of putting anyone in harm’s way. Quite the opposite, they were lionizing a home-town hero, but the damage occurred nonetheless. The fact remains that most intelligence is gleaned by open source, with our enemies reading everything they can on us to determine weakness. With terrorism it’s pretty much 100%. The Al Qaida version of the KGB doesn’t exist, so they rely on open source information, and the data built is done brick by brick, one tidbit at a time. One thing that seems innocuous can be pieced together with another thing from a separate article/book that also seems innocuous. I hear people say, “What’s the big deal? That stuff is in Call of Duty. It’s not secret.” You know why it’s in Call of Duty? Do you think it’s because that geek code-writer knew what to put in? No. It’s because someone talked. And yes, in at least one video game, that someone is Matt Bissonette, along with a bunch of his friends.
Matt’s story is that he thought he’d done what was necessary, coupled with a statement that he had no intention to profit. It was all about telling the story of the “team”. It wasn’t about him. An altruistic effort done solely to honor those he served with. This is belied by the facts. Take a look at his latest mea culpa on 60 minutes. He makes some telling statements. When asked if he gave up classified, he says, no, he didn’t, “To the best of my ability”. Which isn’t exactly honest. The best of his ability would have been to submit the book for review. Why didn’t he? If he had no intention of profit? Interestingly enough, there was another book about the UBL mission coming out at that time. Mark Bowden’s book, “The Finish”. The DOD revision process for Bissonette would take twelve months (Bowden had no such requirement, as he wasn’t on the ground and was basically fishing for information – which I’ll get to below). If it was all about setting the record straight, why not go the correct route? Did the lawyer convince him that waiting for the process and allowing Bowden’s book to release first would tarnish the reputation of his team? Or would waiting that long have taken the teeth out of his manuscript, losing profits by giving them to Bowden?
“Shooter” Rob Oneill’s latest interview with Bill O’reilly has him ostensibly coming to grips with going public after an emotional speaking engagement at the 9/11 museum, where he spontaneously went on stage to give his story for “closure.” Yet, by Peter Doocy’s admission (the man who initially interviewed him for the FOX special), O’neill had contacted him beforehand to film it, “in case he wanted to go public five, ten or twenty years from now.” To hear O’neill tell it, he had no intention of exposing his role, but was driven to do so by the “closure” he gave the families. Once again, this is belied by the fact that he gave a disgusting interview to Esquire the previous year complaining about how he’d killed Bin Laden and now had no military benefits. He was the greatest hero of our generation, and now he couldn’t get a job. Yeah, he can’t get a job because he just gave up his security clearance by blabbing. I’m no hero, and I get fourteen emails a day asking me if I’d like to work. But that requires a clearance, which you can’t have if you spend all your time giving up classified information to anyone who will listen on the motivational speaking circuit.
One comment in the 60 Minutes interview is telling. When asked if he provided classified information in his book, Matt’s answer is, “Not intentionally.”
Yeah, I agree. That’s why there’s a review process.
2. It’s not fair that Generals, Admirals, and the head of the CIA can write books when the guy getting shot at can’t.
This argument is a straw man, and what’s ironic is that Matt Bissonette’s next book proves it so. Nobody said he couldn’t write his story. Only that it had to be reviewed. Generals, Admirals, and everyone else at that level do two things when they write a book.
- They write about the hard life they had getting to their level or about the overarching strategic decision-making in their actions. They don’t write about tactics, techniques, and procedures. They talk about vague meetings in the oval office, or a deer hunt they were on as a child.
- They get their books VETTED in accordance with the law.
Comparing their books to No Easy Day is a false analogy that plays on their rank to give Matt breathing room for relief from criminal prosecution. I mean, how is it possible to beat up the enlisted man when these generals get away with it? It’s a great legal tactic, and plays well with the population, but the two situations are not comparable. Hypocritically, when asked this very thing by the 60 Minutes interviewer, specifically whether it was right for the lowly enlisted man to write a book when the generals do so, his answer is “Absolutely”, ignoring the nuances of the process the generals went through.
But he’s got another book that just came out. That one is EXACTLY like the very generals he chastises. It’s his “How I became a SEAL” book, without specific mission information, and lo and behold, he submitted it for review. Just like the generals. And amazingly, the evil department of defense said he could publish it. Anyone saying it’s unfair for generals and admirals to publish books while others are attacked for doing so have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s apples and oranges. Submit the book, get it reviewed, then publish it. Just like Matt Bissonette. Well, like Matt Bissonette’s second book, anyway.
3. Everything on the mission was already given up. There have been magazine articles, books and movies about the mission. He didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said.
Just because someone writes something doesn’t make it true. I’ve actually talked about this in another blog when people spout absolute fantasy about classified organizations. Yes, there has been a lot of information written about the Bin Laden raid, but nobody knew if it was accurate or not. They assumed, but didn’t know. There’s only one way to know, and that’s when the man on the ground says so.
As an example, Mark Bowden’s book appears to be, by all accounts, pretty accurate (full disclosure, I have no idea. I wasn’t there). But, right after the actual mission, before Bowden’s book, a man named Chuck Pfarrer, a former member of SEAL Team 6 with “inside sources”, came out with a book called Target Geronimo, and it’s been pretty much hammered as complete hogwash.
Just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s accurate. And this is the cutline. Yeah, an unnamed “official” can be quoted in an article, and “sources close to the mission” can be used, but at the end of the day, it’s just speculation. When Matt Bissonette or Rob O’neill talks, it’s confirmed. Using the fact that unnamed sources gave up accurate information first as an excuse to confirm that very same information is still giving up classified. For every unnamed source that talks accurately, there’s another one spouting crap (IE – read Seymour Hersh). When men who’ve signed a non-disclosure statement talk, they confirm or deny all the stories. In the news world, someone becomes the winner, and someone becomes the loser. Unfortunately, everyone becomes the loser in the real world.
At the end of the day, all of this appears to be just he said, she said. I mean, does it really matter? Yes, it does. We don’t keep secrets because we want to. We don’t do it so we can sit in the back of a party and secretly feel superior that we know something you don’t. We do it because it protects lives.
Matt Bissonette described the launch point for the operation in Afghanistan. An innocuous base, seemingly unclassified, he felt it wouldn’t cause any harm to do so – which is a little naïve considering he’d just killed the head of al Qaida. After the book came out, that base was attacked, and an American was KIA. On 60 Minutes, he was questioned about this, as a SEAL master chief said he was responsible. His answer was that it was a stretch to say a mortar attack was a result of his book. I know he must do this in order to sleep at night, but the answer is a little too pat.
Unfortunately, I have intimate knowledge of this attack. It wasn’t a mortar. It was a synchronized suicide assault against the same classified compound Bissonette launched from. Something that had never occurred at that base. His book was released in September of 2012. The attack was in December of 2012. About enough time to study the book, determine what the enemy could effect with their limited reach, then utilize the very indigenous networks he disparages to plan an assault where the “top secret” base was located within the perimeter.
The person who was killed wasn’t a random individual walking down the street. He was Taz, a close personal friend and the man I dedicated The Widow’s Strike to. He died repelling the attack. I can’t prove that Bissonette’s book had anything to do with his death, because every terrorist who attacked was killed, but there’s one sure way to prove it didn’t.
Don’t write the damn book.
Update, 15 NOV
A reader commented below that not all generals do the correct thing, and brought up the case of LTG Boykin, a retired SOF commander. He is absolutely correct, and Boykin was actually in the original blog. I had a ton of other stuff in as well, and it was becoming too long, so I cut his example, along with other information. In hindsight, that was a poor decision, because a) it looks like I’m hiding officer/Army wrongdoing at the expense of the enlisted/Navy, and b) his book is a prime example of the brick-building analogy I discussed at the beginning of the blog, whereby the enemy can glean information. For the record, he was, in fact investigated, and was found to be criminally negligent of disclosing classified information. He was not formally charged, however. He was only given a reprimand – a scathing reprimand, but a reprimand nonetheless. In the end, two wrongs don’t make a right.