WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s chief spokesman said Tuesday for the first time that a book written by a former Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden contained classified information.
“Sensitive and classified information is contained in the book,” spokesman George Little said at a Pentagon news conference.
The comment escalates a conflict between the Pentagon and the author who wrote ” No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden.” Little has previously said the author, who wrote under the pen-name “Mark Owen,” violated a non-disclosure agreement he signed as a Navy SEAL by not submitting the book for pre-publication review.
The author’s attorney, Robert Luskin, has said a 2007 agreement “invites but by no means requires” pre-publication review. Luskin didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mailed requests for comment today. The book was scheduled for publication today by Dutton, a unit of Penguin Group USA.
The author, first identified by Fox News, is Matt Bissonnette, 36, of La Mirada, Calif., who was a member of the elite counterterrorism SEAL Team Six that killed bin Laden. In the book, Bissonnette says he took steps to ensure that he wouldn’t be inadvertently releasing classified information and that he hired a former special-operations attorney to review the manuscript.
Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, local time after the team of U.S. special operations forces raided the compound in Pakistan where the al-Qaida leader had been hiding. The killing came almost 10 years after bin Laden orchestrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and a field in Pennsylvania where the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.
In the book, Bissonnette writes of his eight years as a member of SEAL Team Six. He says that he was in a helicopter that careened almost out of control in the opening minutes of the raid on bin Laden’s hideout. A point man fired a first shot into bin Laden’s head, and Bissonnette joined a third raider in firing additional shots into the downed terrorist’s chest, according to the book.
Little said Tuesday that the Pentagon continues “to review our options when it comes to legal accountability.”
The Defense Department hasn’t issued a directive to block sales of the book at military bases, he said.
Asked why the Pentagon made no move to stop publication if the book contains classified information, Little said, “We didn’t have much time in this case.”
By the time the Pentagon obtained and began reviewing the book, “pre-release copies of the book were already being circulated around,” he said.
Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson sent a letter to the author dated Aug. 30 warning that he was “in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed” in 2007. “Further public dissemination of your book will aggravate your breach and violation of your agreements.”
Johnson’s letter didn’t specify whether the book contained classified information. Little said on Aug. 31 that the Pentagon hadn’t reached a conclusion.
“Sometimes it takes awhile to come to a final decision in a legal review,” he said at the time. “We want to be prudent.”
In response to reporters’ questions Tuesday, Little gradually toughened his statements, first saying the book contains “sensitive” information, and then saying it “probably” contains “classified” information before saying the Defense Department believes classified information is in the book and finally that it does contain such information.
The Pentagon has consulted the Department of Justice about the book while reviewing all legal options, Little has said.
“It is the height of irresponsibility not to have this kind of material checked for the possible disclosure” of classified information, Little said.
The need for a pre-publication review is “a no-brainer,” Little said. “This is common sense.”
It is too early to assess what damage might be done by the release of classified information contained in the book, he said.