The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to publicize details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, even as it threatens to file criminal charges against a former Navy SEAL because he provided the same type of mission rundown in his recently published book.
An examination by The Washington Times shows that several details in the book “No Easy Day” already have appeared in print based on interviews with administration officials and likely will be included in an upcoming movie and another book.
Perhaps the most detailed account of the raid appeared in a 2011 New Yorker article based on authorized interviews with White House officials. A source close to SEAL Team 6, which carried out the May 2011 mission, said unit members were told after the article was published that it was based, in part, on an authorized interview with a mission planner.
Internal administration emails released last month in a Freedom of Information lawsuit show extraordinary cooperation between filmmakers working on a movie about the bin Laden raid and Obama political appointees. At least one person who took part in the raid was made available to the movie’s director and screenwriter, the emails show.
A book coming out three weeks before the Nov. 6 election details the bin Laden raid, step by step. It also is based on cooperation with the White House, according to the source close to SEAL Team 6. The book’s publicity blurb says it will focus on President Obama, who has made the bin Laden killing a focal point of his re-election campaign.
“No Easy Day” author Matt Bissonnette, a former SEAL who used the pen name Mark Owen, has been threatened by the Pentagon with criminal charges for his first-person account of the bin Laden mission.
George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, flatly accused Mr. Bissonnette of divulging secrets.
Mr. Bissonnette’s attorney said in a letter that the book does not contain classified information and that his client did not violate a nondisclosure agreement that calls for pre-publication review.
What has struck some is the zeal with which the Obama administration is going after Mr. Bissonnette, even though senior officials have released details on how bin Laden was killed in a hideout in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
“The Obama administration strategically leaked details of the bin Laden raid for political advantage,” said Charles Gittins, a criminal defense lawyer who has defended scores of military clients, including SEALs. “The author of the book is writing about what he personally observed, which really can’t be classified, which I am confident the administration knows, and is the reason they didn’t move more strongly to stop the publication.
“Using strategic leaks for political gain, while complaining that a witness to events wrote about what he personally saw and did, really is the height of hypocrisy,” Mr. Gittins said.
The Pentagon’s position is that, regardless of what has been released by administration officials, the ex-SEAL violated rules by failing to have his manuscript reviewed.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Times: “I don’t really want to litigate this in the press. But the view of the department is that he had a clear and unambiguous obligation to consult with us prior to publishing, and he did not. He also had a clear and unambiguous obligation not to disclose classified information, and he did.”
The White House push to tell the bin Laden story has resulted in scores of pre-“No Easy Day” accounts of the raid in newspapers and magazines. The articles quote administration officials, White House aides and Pentagon sources. Some are quoted on the record, some on background.
The most detailed account appears to be an article titled “What happened that night in Abbottabad” in the Aug. 8, 2011, issue of the New Yorker. Citing authorized interviews, it offers direct quotes from Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communications; Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan; and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman. It also includes statements from a “senior Obama adviser.”
The article’s sequence of events closely mirror what Mr. Bissonnette wrote: The Black Hawk helicopters’ route, how the SEALs entered the compound, how they moved from room to room, the weapons used, how security was maintained around the perimeter, the killing itself, the radio broadcast to Washington that confirmed the death, the hunt for intelligence documents, and the “exfil,” or flight back to base.
Mr. Bissonnette’s book describes the same events, only in first-person with the author’s thoughts and actions at the moment. The New Yorker author has said he did not interview any of the 24 men on the mission itself.
For instance, when the SEALs entered bin Laden’s room, two of his wives protected the gravely wounded al Qaeda leader.
The New Yorker author wrote: “Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside. He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest.”
Wrote Mr. Bissonnette: “Swinging his gun to the side, the point man grabbed both women and drove them toward the corner of the room. If either woman had on a suicide vest, he probably saved our lives, but it would have cost him his own.”
The New Yorker article relies on quotes from a “special operations officer.”
For example: “‘Special operations is about doing what’s not expected, and probably the least expected thing here was that a helicopter would come in, drop guys on the roof, and land in the yard,’ the special-operations officer said.”
When the New Yorker article was published, the members in SEAL Team Six surmised it was just another series of leaks from the White House, the source close to the SEALs told The Times.
But later, word spread that a planner for the raid, but not an actual participant, had been authorized to talk to the New Yorker.
Kenneth McGraw, spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, told The Times in an e-mail: “Whoever gave you that information is wrong. No such interview took place, and USSOCOM has never authorized anyone to discuss that mission.”
Asked if the New Yorker received an authorized briefing from a mission planner, a magazine spokeswoman told The Times that the author’s “aggressively reported story relied on numerous sources. However the New Yorker has a policy of not discussing confidential sources.”
Next, ‘The Finish’
The New Yorker article was hardly the first account of the raid based on interviews with Obama officials. On May 3, 2011, two days after the operation, the New York Times ran a large graphic showing the compound, a description of the SEALs movements and how the raid was executed.
Internal administration emails reveal that officials showed a detailed model of compound to moviemakers, with specific rooms identified.
Likewise, Mr. Bissonnette’s book contains a model of the bin Laden compound and a graphic on how the raid was carried out.
A May 2011 New York Times’ story cited “a dozen White House, intelligence and Pentagon officials” who “described the operations.” Mr. Brennan, the counterterrorism aide, spoke to the Times on the record.
Clearly, the same administration that now is threatening Mr. Bissonnette was knowingly releasing the same kind of detail a year earlier, the source close to the SEALs said.
Next month brings a new book on the raid, “The Finish” by best-selling author Mark Bowden, who wrote “Black Hawk Down,” the tale of a failed special operations mission in Somalia.
The source close to the SEALs said that unit members have been told that Mr. Obama and Navy Adm. William McRaven, who commands U.S. Special Operations Command, cooperated with the book’s author.
Publisher Grove/Atlantic’s blurb says it will be favorable to the president.
A blurb states: “The story focuses on bin Laden, who maintained a stream of despairing correspondence in hiding in the year before his death, and on President Obama, perceived by many as an anti-war candidate, whose evolving views and enormous responsibilities have turned him into one of the most determined warriors to ever inhabit the White House.”
The book’s publicist told The Times “I can’t confirm” whether Mr. Obama was interviewed.
Adm. McRaven, a SEAL by training who directed the bin Laden mission when he led Joint Special Operations Command, has been one of Mr. Bissonnette’s harshest critics.
“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,” he said in a letter to his troops.
Mr. McGraw, the special operations spokesman, declined to say if Adm. McRaven helped with the Bowden book.
“I am not going to comment on who may or may not have talked to the admiral,” he said. “I can say Adm. McRaven decided shortly after the raid the only things he would discuss would be at the strategic level, like the national security decision-making process. He has been very consistent and faithful to that position and does not discuss operational or tactical details.”
The White House has gone to great lengths to help Hollywood make a movie on the bin Laden raid. “Zero Dark Thirty” had been due to come out before the election at the time the White House was helping filmmakers, but now has been delayed until December.
Judicial Watch announced Aug. 28 it obtained via the Freedom of Information Act a series of internal emails that show close cooperation between the movie’s director and screenwriter and Obama political appointees at the CIA, Pentagon and White House.
On June 15, 2011, a month after the raid, White House communications aide Ben Rhodes wrote to spokesman Douglas Wilson at the Pentagon: “We are trying to have visibility into the [bin Laden] projects, and this is likely the most high-profile one. Would like to have whoever the group is that’s going around in here at the WH to get a sense of what they’re doing/what cooperating they are seeking.”
Mr. Rhodes at about that time was cooperating with the New Yorker for its August 2011 story.
A June 21, 2011 email from a Pentagon public relations official to U.S. Special Operations Command said of the screenwriter: “Of course at some point he hopes to interview SEALs and whether SoCom would be amenable to this kind of research remains to be seen.”
Following a July meeting at the CIA involving the director, screenwriter and a senior spy, CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf wrote in an email, “told them we’re here to help with whatever they need.”
This email said the moviemakers were due to meet with the translator who was on the raid and with another person whose name is deleted. Ms. Harf was trying to get them briefings from other high-level intelligence and counterterror officials. She had been a CIA Middle East analyst before joining the public relations shop in 2008.
Meanwhile, Navy SEALs already have become movie stars.
Two active duty SEALs were authorized — some in the community say “ordered” — to appear in the movie “Act of Valor,” which debuted in February.