WASHINGTON — Some lamebrain local prosecutor once contemplated indicting America's superspy, Richard Helms, for an infraction involving his role in a national intelligence matter. Wiser heads prevailed, however, and the idea was dropped rather promptly.
The short-lived affair caused a Capitol Hill wag to remark that bringing the former Central Intelligence Agency director before the bar on anything short of murder would be like indicting the atomic bomb. The risk of catastrophic explosion and the resulting fallout was too great. He meant that the vast storehouse of information Helms possessed about the nation's secrets, going back to the days of the Office of Strategic Services, made him pretty much immune from any such action. Just putting him on the witness stand would be dangerous.
That is what the Pentagon faces in contemplating the prosecution of a decorated veteran of a whole bunch of Navy SEAL operations.
Mark Bissonnette's "No Easy Day," a book released Tuesday about the raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden, has caused a stir in the military's special-operations community. While the author may not be quite up to Helms' level when it comes to knowledge of classified information, he certainly knows enough to make things uncomfortable.
As a result, the betting is that while the brass would love nothing more than to charge Bissonnette — the second man through the door of bin Laden's room — with violating nondisclosure agreements he signed with the government, the chances are pretty good that they won't. Bissonnette and his legal team contend the book does not include classified information, although the Pentagon claimed otherwise as late as Tuesday. The irony is that to prove some of the information was classified, the government seemingly would have to reveal what those secrets are. The book's publisher, Penguin, printed a whopping 575,000 hardback copies about SEAL Team 6 and the bin Laden operation.
Although "No Easy Day" was written under a pseudonym, it took only a short time for Bissonnette to be identified. Various motives have been cited as the reason Bissonnette broke the code of silence that's so much a part of the special-ops mystique. He was disgruntled over treatment he received when he discussed leaving the service, one theory goes. He has denied most of them.
One valid explanation, it seems to me, is that few such raids in history have garnered more attention than this one — with everyone except the actual participants claiming some credit. (President Barack Obama's political team developed a campaign slogan showcasing this achievement — "GM alive, bin Laden dead" — and General Motors' revival.) An avalanche of material already has been disclosed.
Also, the book doesn't reveal secrets about the SEAL members' rigorous training, physical and psychological. Special-ops branches from the Delta Force to the Rangers to the SEALs have cooperated in a dozen ways with Hollywood. How difficult would it be to prosecute Bissonnette on publication restrictions?
The stakes are pertinent. Could this lead to delicate information being revealed in the discovery process?Comment on this story
Past exercises involving classified documents and testimony have not ended well for government prosecutors. They have preferred to drop the charges rather than make public revelations and certainly judges have not been generous to attempts at obfuscation and delay. Legal experts believe it would not be different this time. So why do it?
The answer might be to make an example of Bissonnette. But, if the Pentagon did not succeed, it would encourage tell-all books that contain serious breaches of classification. It is a dilemma the Pentagon would rather not face at this time, when military planning depends more and more on small, special-operations commands stationed around the globe. Besides the nondisclosure agreements, special-ops units have relied on the macho loyalty of their members to keep their lips sealed.
That wall of silence now has a severe crack in it, no matter what the government decides about Bissonnette. Personally, I don't care. Bin Laden got dead. That's all I need to know.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.