Did the SEALS on the Osama bin Laden Raid Break Their Code of Silence for Fame and Fortune?

An interview with former SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette.

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.
National Journal
Nov. 13, 2014, 8:19 a.m.

When the man who shot Osama bin Laden re­cently re­vealed him­self pub­licly, it re­kindled con­cerns that the most fam­ous mis­sion in the his­tory of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces has ir­re­par­ably com­prom­ised the code of si­lence that had long cloaked such “black ops” units. Former Navy SEAL Team 6 mem­ber Robert James O’Neill’s rev­el­a­tion pro­voked in­tense cri­ti­cism, for in­stance, from his former team mem­bers. The com­mand­er and mas­ter chief of the Navy Spe­cial War­fare Com­mand wrote a let­ter not­ing that “we do not abide will­ful or selfish dis­reg­ard for our core val­ues in re­turn for pub­lic no­tori­ety, or fin­an­cial gain.” The U.S. gov­ern­ment is already re­portedly re­quir­ing former SEAL Team 6 mem­ber Matt Bis­son­nette to for­feit $4.5 mil­lion of the pro­ceeds from his book No Easy Day, writ­ten un­der the pen name Mark Owen, be­cause he failed to sub­mit it for Pentagon re­view be­fore pub­lic­a­tion. Re­cently I spoke about the con­tro­versy with Bis­son­ette, who is pub­lish­ing an­oth­er book about his trans­ition to ci­vil­ian life titled No Hero. Ed­ited ex­cerpts of that in­ter­view fol­low.

In the re­cent let­ters cri­ti­ciz­ing rev­el­a­tions about the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Navy Spe­cial War­fare Com­mand lead­ers em­phas­ized the “crit­ic­al ten­et” of your former pro­fes­sion is to “not ad­vert­ise the nature of my work, nor seek re­cog­ni­tion for my ac­tion.” Are you guilty of break­ing that creed?

I don’t think so. I ad­mit the last two years have been really tough, and that’s es­pe­cially true with the cur­rent situ­ation and oth­er people talk­ing about their in­di­vidu­al ac­tions on the raid. From the be­gin­ning with my book I tried to sep­ar­ate my­self from those fo­cus­ing on what they per­son­ally did. I fo­cused on what I thought the team did right. I didn’t even put my own name on the book. Yes, that was partly for se­cur­ity reas­ons, but I also didn’t want it to be about me. It’s about the team. The same thing holds for No Hero. I con­tin­ue to write un­der the name Mark Owen, the bet­ter to talk about the team, and not any one per­son.

You are re­portedly su­ing your former law­yer for $8 mil­lion for al­legedly ad­vising you that the manuscript for No Easy Day did not need to be sub­mit­ted to the Pentagon for pre­pub­lic­a­tion re­view. Do you still plan to donate the pro­ceeds from the book to char­ity?

Donat­ing the pro­ceeds to char­ity has been my plan from the be­gin­ning. Of course, I have to deal with this leg­al drama first. But when it’s all sor­ted out, I hope to hon­or that com­mit­ment to donate the pro­ceeds to char­ity.

Why did you de­cide to write a book about your life as a Navy SEAL and the bin Laden raid, know­ing that by break­ing the code of si­lence you would up­set some of your former team mem­bers?

Be­cause I read a book in ju­ni­or high called Men With Green Faces that in­spired me to want to be­come a SEAL and serve my coun­try. I wanted to do the same thing with No Easy Day. Also, the idea that there should be no dis­cus­sion about what SEALS or Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces do seems kind of ir­rel­ev­ant at this point. [Former CIA Dir­ect­or and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Le­on] Pan­etta es­sen­tially au­thor­ized the movie Zero Dark Thirty on the Bin Laden raid, and he also wrote his own book [Worthy Fights]. [Former Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand com­mand­er] Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal wrote his own book [My Share of the Task]. [Navy SEAL] Mar­cus Lut­trell wrote his book [Lone Sur­viv­or, which was turned in­to a movie]. [Navy Spe­cial War­fare Com­mand Cm­dr. Ad­mir­al Bri­an] Lo­sey comes out and says SEALs shouldn’t be talk­ing about what they do, which would be an easi­er ar­gu­ment to buy if the com­mand it­self didn’t au­thor­ize the Hol­ly­wood block­buster Acts of Val­or, which in­cluded real act­ive-duty SEALS and ex­posed real tac­tics. So the ar­gu­ment that we shouldn’t be telling our stor­ies doesn’t mean that much, if our own lead­er­ship is do­ing it. Heck, [SEAL Team 6 founder Richard] Mar­cinko and [U.S. Army Delta Force founder Charlie] Beck­with both wrote books [Rogue War­ri­or, and Delta Force, re­spect­ively], and no one really com­plained.

But wer­en’t you leg­ally bound to have No Easy Day prereviewed by the Pentagon?

I’ve ad­mit­ted pub­licly that I got some really bad leg­al ad­vice and failed to have my book prereviewed, which I really re­gret. I’ve learned from my mis­take, and I sub­mit­ted No Hero for prereview by the Pentagon. That’s an­oth­er les­son I took from my mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence. Learn from your mis­takes, move on, and worry about what comes next. My lar­ger point is just that it’s really hard for me to ac­cept this ar­gu­ment that mem­bers of the mil­it­ary shouldn’t talk about what they did in these wars. We should be able to share our stor­ies. Now, I tried to do that the right way by point­ing out over and over that I couldn’t have ac­com­plished any­thing without the team.

In No Hero you write about the dif­fi­cult trans­ition from war­ri­or to ci­vil­ian, and how you have ex­per­i­enced post-trau­mat­ic stress syn­drome.

Yeah, of course there’s noth­ing new about that story. A lot of vet­er­ans struggle to put their war­time ex­per­i­ences be­hind them and fig­ure out what to do with their lives. That can be a pretty scary chal­lenge, es­pe­cially with some of the bag­gage we carry from our ser­vice. In my case, I went on 14 strait com­bat de­ploy­ments. There are 40 dead friends whose num­bers I still keep in my tele­phone. Those names haunt me.

Can you ever fully get over that kind of ex­per­i­ence and loss?

You know, I had com­mit­ted and sac­ri­ficed everything to live the life that I first dreamed of as a young kid read­ing Men With Green Faces. Be­ing part of that broth­er­hood; sac­ri­fi­cing for each oth­er; liv­ing for something big­ger than my­self; do­ing these cool mis­sions—that was the dream, and I got to live it for 14 years. But it def­in­itely takes a toll, both phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally. No one walks away from that kind of ex­per­i­ence without bag­gage, to in­clude PTSD, and I’ve got my share of that bag­gage. I may be a SEAL, but I’m still hu­man like every­one else.

Was there a mo­ment when you sensed the emo­tion­al toll your ser­vice was ex­act­ing?

I re­mem­ber com­ing back from the raid on bin Laden’s com­pound, which was my last mis­sion. I didn’t sleep for five days once I got back home. I ran in­to one of my best friends at work, and I asked him, “Hey, man, are you sleep­ing at all?” He just shook his head. “No man, I haven’t slept in days.” I kind of sighed with re­lief when I heard that. I thought to my­self, ‘OK, this is nor­mal.’ Look­ing back, if we had re­turned from that mis­sion and just slept like ba­bies, that would have been crazy. Be­lieve me, we’re not ma­chines.

Many ob­serv­ers hoped that with the death of bin Laden, the threat from Al Qaida and af­fil­i­ated groups would fade. Are you sur­prised that the Is­lam­ist ex­trem­ists have come back stronger than ever in the guise of the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia?

No, we shouldn’t be sur­prised. The second you take these guys for gran­ted, and as­sume they are no longer evolving and chan­ging as they look for new ways to kill us, you will be in trouble. This is hard for me to say, but if we just stay on the de­fens­ive and hope the world out there be­comes a bet­ter place, we’re go­ing to get hit hard again. We have to keep after these ex­trem­ists, maybe not with an­oth­er in­va­sion of Ir­aq, but ab­so­lutely with op­er­a­tions by Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces. I as­sure you, these ex­trem­ists won’t be ne­go­ti­ated in­to stop­ping what they are do­ing, or be­liev­ing something oth­er than what they be­lieve.

Why did you de­cide to re­tire?

Well, my first de­ploy­ment was when the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks happened, and after that I raised my hand and vo­lun­teered for 13 more de­ploy­ments. I spent very little time at home dur­ing those years. Then in 2011 my en­list­ment peri­od was end­ing, and I was already lean­ing to­ward get­ting out rather than reen­list­ing. Then the bin Laden raid spun up, and when I got back from that, I vis­ited Ground Zero in New York. I knew then that 9/11 and the bin Laden mis­sion were per­fect bookends to my mil­it­ary ca­reer. Right there at Ground Zero I de­cided that was it. I was hanging up my guns.

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