Probably everyone by now has heard about “No Easy Day,” the book by a former Navy SEAL who was involved in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Aside from the mysterious world it uncovers, the book raises questions about the Obama administration’s official story of the killing of bin Laden. This book charges that bin Laden was shot in the head when he peered out of bedroom door. The government claimed he was a threat and had to be shot before a SEAL was killed.
There is a formal procedure for getting permission to declassify material, just as there is for publications that might contain classified material.
A number of books about SEALs have been published in recent months, and I have no idea how many went through the declassification process. I know something about it, or how it used to be, because when I worked in the State Department I had to have all of my articles and books cleared prior to publication.
Clearance was for two specific purposes. First, was the question of policy. Perhaps it was unique to State, but an employee could not publish an article “openly opposed to positions advocated by the U.S. Govern-ment.” That made sense. After all, in State one did not have a policy preference. Foreign Service officers’ public preferences are those advocated by the president at the time.
Internally, there was no limitation on what policy one advocated. If one hoped to move up the ranks, it was wise to oppose policy quietly and only on something one felt strongly about. If handled diplomatically, such a view often brought respect.
There are three levels of classification: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Just about everything handled in State or the Pentagon was Confidential or Secret. We used to joke that if a memo did not carry one of those classifications — at least — no one would read them.
According to some former colleagues, the process tightened up considerably in the aftermath of 9/11. Getting cleared for access to classified material takes longer now, and classified material is handled much more carefully.
The problem confronting the particular SEAL, identified as Matt Bissonnette, 36, is that he wrote about an area that is almost entirely classified. SEALs’ names are classified, as is what they do, how they do it and where they do it. So why come out with an exposé?
Based on what I have read, there is genuine appreciation for Obama’s decision to send the SEALs to get bin Laden. At the same time, I can imagine the bitterness SEALs felt about the White House when it came to leaking classified material.
It is pretty well accepted that most of the material leaked about the operation to get bin Laden came from the White House, in particular the National Security Council. Information of this type would not only be classified, but — to use the Washington expression — it would be compartmentalized. The more sensitive the information, the fewer individuals who are permitted to see it. I cannot imagine any government operation more sensitive.
SEALs were understandably furious at the White House leaks. The leaks may have made Obama look good and tough, but they also revealed “sources and methods.” Anyone who has any doubts need only see the movie coming out on the killing of bin Laden; filmmakers had access to some of this information.
Americans aren’t the only ones watching; Islamic terrorists and other governments also are watching. That is apparently how the Pakistani physician who was imprisoned for helping us was identified. Also, other nations become more reluctant to trust our government with secrets, which can make life much more dangerous for the SEALs.
The White House assures us that a full investigation is under way to determine who disclosed the information. Maybe I am cynical after spending so many years in Washington, but I doubt this investigation will be finished by Nov. 6. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised if its findings are never published.
Rumors are floating that Bissonnette will be charged with revealing classified information. I doubt it, because such a legal case would be aimed at the Obama administration as well.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.