Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Navy SEAL's Bin Laden Raid Bestseller and US National Security

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 14 September 2012.

Everyone holds an opinion, even those who are obligated by law or profession to remain neutral. It is human nature. It can foreseeably become difficult to sit by and listen as everyone around you who is free to gives their opinion, some misguided and others even profiting from it, while professional obligations require you to stay silent. Such is the burden, however, of being a professional in a position of importance to national security.

This conflict is not new, but the pressures and incentives for breaking the rules are growing. With TV pundit spots, big publishing advances, and organizations such as WikiLeaks providing opportunity and motivation, are western democracies even capable of keeping secrets anymore?

Matt Bissonnette, calling himself "Mark Owen", was a member of Navy Seal Team 6 and took part in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He has written a book that extensively details the raid and has unleashed a controversy in doing so. Paired with this debate are the attacks of Opsec, a rightwing political action committee started by other former Navy Seals who are attacking President Obama and his administration for releasing generally similar information on the Bin Laden raid to the press.

Both Bissonnette and Opsec have been rebuked by senior military officials at the Pentagon such as special operations commander Admiral William McRaven and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The US government has not ruled out taking legal action.

When one swears an oath to serve the country as a member of the military or any national security-related agency, a different set of rules applies immediately. A measure of your personal freedom, freedom of speech, and political participation rights are curtailed. Inductees know this beforehand, are well-briefed upon induction, and periodically afterward. They sign non-disclosure statements to the effect, and laws prevent the disclosure of identified security information. You also know that some, much, or all of what you do will remain anonymous and unaccredited. Matt Bissonnette knew this when he wrote his autobiography.

All this is necessary for many reasons, foremost among them being to preserve the dedication to the nation such jobs require. You may be putting your life, or the lives of many others, at risk for the country, and be privy to sensitive information; you should be doing so because you feel a sense of duty, commitment, and patriotism. To allow public servants working in national security roles or members of the military to profit financially or to have an outsize influence on partisan political debate because of what they've done or what they know is detrimental to national security. Allowing this behavior would mean having soldiers and civil servants motivated by the opportunities of fame and fortune, leaving aside the selfless commitment and dedication to duty and country such roles do and ought to require.

This larger point is one many seem to miss. It is arguable that both the information in Bissonette's book and the information disclosed by the White House following the Bin Laden raid were not classified or going to get anyone killed. The difference is that the president has the obligation and duty to inform the public about such an important event, regardless of one's opinion of him personally: he is the commander-in-chief. But soldiers or civil servants profiting personally, or even for charity as Bissonnette claims he is doing, by giving their own personal accounts of the facts calls into question his selfless dedication to country and duty first. Allowing this to continue would attract the wrong sort of people with false motivations into military or government service.

This has become a problem of late for the United States. Television news channels and bookstore shelves are filled with pundits and commentators who are former CIA agents or soldiers. The gap in time between events and the release of bestsellers about them is getting ever smaller. Many of America's intelligence agencies have lax policies toward private-sector recruiters pulling their employees and some are even allowed to "moonlight" and offer their services privately while still employees of the agency. These policies have become a problem with intelligence agencies losing many of their top people to private firms after years of training and service. Disgruntled civil servants and soldiers have released secured government information in the media.

These events call into question the motivations, independence, and commitment to duty of the individuals who take part in them. Serving in the military or government should be about a life dedicated to protecting and serving the country, not serving one's self by securing a nice paycheck and nice retirement.

Many would push back against this by saying that those who occupy positions in the White House or Congress profit greatly from their service, or even the service of others, so why shouldn't people like Matt Bissonnette, who actually put their own lives on the line, be allowed to profit from it? Yet, presidents and congressmen and women should not profit personally from their jobs either – and their perceived abuse and misuse of their offices to do so is a reason why the majority of Americans have lost respect for these institutions and officials. Overwhelming majorities of Americans still hold a great deal of respect and esteem for the military and intelligence services because they are seen as representing selfless commitment to the country above self. They're not seen as corrupt, as other militaries and intelligence agencies around the world are. Allowing such behavior to continue may put this view in jeopardy.

Such events as the Abbottabad raid don't need to remain a secret forever, especially since the fact that the event occurred is public knowledge. It is important to our democracy, history, and society that the public learns what, how, and why events such as this happen. But there should be a space of several years in between.

Matt Bissonnette should be allowed to tell his story, but not while it is still such a present event. There are many possible consequences. Detailing such a raid may amount to providing "open-source" intelligence for our international opponents. Disclosing details of equipment, tactics, techniques, or procedures that may seem harmless and mundane on their own can be pieced together with other information. For Bissonnette to wait a couple years to tell his story would not have reduced its national historical significance – though it may have reduced his big-name television interviews or book sales.

There is a difference between Bissonnette's book and the disclosure of a crime or "whistleblowing". The reporting or disclosure of a felony or fraud, waste or abuse is quite different from writing a bestselling autobiographical book. Whistleblowers rarely profit from making what they know public: frequently, they lose their jobs, and often endure lawsuits or years of abuse afterwards. Their motivation is usually to correct a wrong. Rewards are offered to encourage them to come forward. Bissonnette was not reporting or disclosing some great crime and he stands to enjoy a great deal of positive attention and profit from his book, even if he donates most of the proceeds to a Navy Seal charity (as he has already attempted to do twice unsuccessfully).

It's hard to be too angry with Matt Bissonnette: he is a genuine hero who put his life on the line more than once and is deserving of the profit and attention he's received. It's pretty hard to keep a secret, especially when that secret is that you had a part in killing Osama bin Laden, one of those rare events which most Americans will recall where they were when it happened. Members of Seal Team 6, already famous before the raid, will probably never have to buy their own beers again.

But what Bissonnette and his defenders miss, and what the majority of his Seal colleagues understand, along with most other members of the military and intelligence community, is that the wider consequences to the national security of the country he risked his life many times to defend outweigh the right to fortune and fame for his bravery, even if it is well-deserved.

In order for the sterling reputation of the United States military and intelligence services to be preserved, and the trust placed in them by average Americans maintained, national security professionals cannot be allowed to profit from their acts, even if they go above and beyond duty or what is normally expected. Seeking fortune and fame, even if merited, cannot be allowed to cloud judgment when it comes to defending America. When it concerns our national security, we need those defending it to continue to put duty and country first. This extraordinary selflessness and dedication is what has kept us safe and strong throughout our history.

Matt Bissonnette has an extraordinary story to tell; he should be allowed to tell it. But he should have waited for it to pass from current affairs and into history first. That a small group of brave and dedicated men finally delivered justice for their country is a story not likely to be forgotten by Americans anytime soon.