For the second time in three months, America’s most sensitive military secrets were sold Monday by authors and publishers determined to make a buck or a splash. In June, the New York Times revealed that the Stuxnet virus was part of an industrial sabotage campaign against Iran directed by the Obama White House. Now the parade continues with “No Easy Day,” a book written by a former Navy SEAL who helped lead the raid on Osama bin Laden. After leaving the military, Matt Bissonnette wrote his real-life adventure under the pen name of Mark Owen, a fig leaf whisked away by the brisk winds of pre-release publicity. But Mr. Bissonnette-Owen neglected to run his manuscript past Pentagon reviewers, possibly subjecting himself to stiff penalties even in retirement. Both the author and his publishers theoretically could be tried for violating the Espionage Act.
The heart of the issue is giving potential adversaries a startlingly detailed look at the tactics, techniques and procedures used by our most lethally effective troops. The reason SEAL missions are called “special operations” is that they are inherently dangerous, succeeding only when conducted with deception, surprise, speed and deadly efficiency. Achieving such high standards requires training exercises rivaled only by the NFL; both professions prepare exactly as they fight. Because Mr. Bissonnette apparently describes this process in loving detail, the book’s most avid readers certainly will include SEAL counterparts in Russia, China and Iran, among others. Such compromises to operational security always create far-reaching, unpredictable dangers. For example, what happens if a future SEAL team is ordered into Damascus to secure Syrian chemical weapons? Will it repeat the success of the SEALs’ covert raid against bin Laden or face a bloody rerun of “Blackhawk Down” by an enemy who now knows precisely what to expect?
The author and his publishers naturally dismiss such concerns. Despite violating several confidentiality agreements, Mr. Bissonnette, who holds five Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, is portrayed as an American hero who has earned the right to tell (or sell) his story. Despite suggestions that book-sale proceeds might be donated to worthy but unnamed causes, the real motivations and interests are strictly commercial. The Penguin press group advanced the book’s release date to exploit the wave of publicity, increasing its first printing to a half-million copies. With breathless excitement, the Associated Press reported, “Pre-orders for the book have catapulted it to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list, displacing the erotic trilogy ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ ” High stakes indeed.
So far, Mr. Bissonnette’s attorneys have carefully defended their client on the narrow grounds of non-disclosure agreements. But they certainly recognize something the general public does not: This government is unlikely to plug leaks by invoking the Espionage Act because its provisions recently have become a dead letter. Three months ago, David E. Sanger of the New York Times published “Confront and Conceal.” He not only spilled the beans about the Stuxnet virus but also detailed how the Obama White House planned its most sensitive operations: killing bin Laden, sabotaging Iranian nuclear reactors and even conducting drone strikes in Pakistan. As I later testified to the House Judiciary Committee, it was as if Mr. Sanger had run a network of KGB moles inside the West Wing. There were immediate suspicions that the leaks were deliberately intended to bolster the macho image of a president already campaigning hard for his second term.
Those insinuations were denounced quickly by President Obama and his spokesman, who barely stopped short of imitating Claude Raines in “Casablanca” — shocked, deeply shocked that anyone would even suggest such chicanery. While this White House is more likely to invite Clint Eastwood to a state banquet than to prosecute its New York Times allies for espionage, it is simply astounding that the administration has done nothing to uncover, prosecute and purge the leakers among its own ranks. Like Mr. Bissonnette, they hold security clearances, signed confidentiality agreements and traded privileged access for media buzz. Unlike him, were they simply following orders from higher-ups?
Without full investigations by Congress or an independent prosecutor, we may never know the answers. One thing, however, is virtually certain: If “all the president’s men” are not held accountable, the odds of successfully prosecuting a former Navy SEAL for precisely the same offense are practically zero. Espionage, once a capital crime deterring saboteurs and spies in war and peace, has effectively become the relic of a bygone era. Today, we simply recycle national secrets into best-selling books.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national-security issues.