A copy of 'No Easy Day', an account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011 by the Navy SEALs who executed the mission, is viewed on the shelf of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company on September 4, 2012 in New York City. The controversial book by Mark Owen, a believed pen name for former SEAL Matt Bissonnette, was criticized by the Pentagon for breaching nondisclosure agreements. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
This much is clear: Americans are hungry for every detail of Osama bin Laden's bloody demise and have turned No Easy Day, a new book by one of the Navy SEALs involved in last year's mission, into a sensation. The author's appearance on CBS' 60 Minutes drew 12.3 million viewers, and the book has toppled Fifty Shades of Grey to become No. 1 on USA TODAY's best-seller list.
OPPOSING VIEW: Throw the book at ex-SEAL
But by breaking secrecy rules, the author painted his own shades of gray: Should details like those in the book be kept forever secret, or are they a harmless recitation of history that should be shared with the public? Should the author be prosecuted, and what sort of precedent would that set? And what do unwritten codes of silence, like that of the SEALs, mean in this kiss-and-tell era.
The answers are anything but black and white.
The author, who used the pen name Mark Owen but was quickly unmasked as former SEAL Matt Bissonnette, starts from a weak position. He signed non-disclosure agreements promising to "never divulge" classified information and to submit articles or books using sensitive information to the government for pre-publication review. His lawyer's insistence that the agreement "invites, but by no means requires" review sounds far-fetched, and though Bissonnette has offered to donate much of the proceeds to SEAL-related charities, the book will still make him rich, undermining his claim to more high-minded motives.
There also are sound reasons for certain sensitive data to remain secret, or at the very least undergo government review. Many former CIA, Pentagon and other government officials abide by similar agreements. If Bissonnette is allowed to shrug one off with impunity, they'll be less credible from now on.
But other considerations cast the book in a different light.
Bissonnette is not the first to disclose details of the mission.
Immediately after the May 2011 raid, the Obama administration saw fit to reveal details of how the world's most notorious terrorist had been killed, and well it should have. The public had every reason to be told how the nation's No. 1 enemy had finally met his demise. And if the administration was right, was Bissonnette wrong, signed agreements aside?
Bissonnett's account, if accurate, actually corrects aspects of the administration version. The White House initially said that bin Laden had "engaged in a firefight" and used a woman as a shield. Later, officials said that he was unarmed and that one of his wives rushed the SEALs and was shot. Bissonnette says bin Laden was shot in the head as he peeked out of his bedroom. Then, as he lay bleeding on his bedroom floor, Bissonnette and another SEAL "fired several rounds" into his chest "until he was motionless."
That information corrects the historical record, and so far it appears to have come at no direct cost to anyone. The Pentagon, still reviewing No Easy Day to see whether it contains classified or sensitive details, hasn't cited anything damaging, such as secret SEAL tactics being exposed.
Then there's the inconvenient fact that SEAL Team 6 carved itself a unique place in U.S. history, and at great risk. Prosecuting a team member would tarnish a heroic story. In fact, it would seem bizarre.
So what to do?
The Pentagon has warned Bissonnette that it may seek to confiscate earnings from his book. Perhaps that's a fitting sanction, but not one that's cost-free. Government's power to restrain former employees from writing anything the government doesn't like should be extremely limited.
As we said, shades of gray.
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