A former member of the Navy SEALs who wrote a best seller about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is under criminal investigation for possibly disclosing classified material, according to federal officials and his lawyer.
The lawyer for the former SEALs member, Matt Bissonnette, said the investigation was focused on whether Mr. Bissonnette had disclosed classified information in the book “No Easy Day,” published under a pseudonym in 2012. But other people familiar with the inquiry said investigators seemed more interested in paid speeches that Mr. Bissonnette, who says he was one of the members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 who shot Bin Laden, gave at corporate events.They include at least one talk last year, at a golf club in Atlanta, in which audience members were asked to turn in their cellphones before he spoke so that nothing could be recorded, according to people who attended the event.
Mr. Bissonnette has apologized for failing to have the book vetted through the Pentagon’s required security review process.
His lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, said he thought he had reached an agreement in the spring with Justice Department and Pentagon officials to settle the dispute over the book’s disclosures by having Mr. Bissonnette forfeit some of the millions of dollars in royalties he had earned. He said he had also sought to insulate Mr. Bissonnette from any criminal charges in that deal.
But rather than approve the deal, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation in May or June, and federal agents have since interviewed Mr. Bissonnette and others, Mr. Luskin said.
Mr. Bissonnette plans to publish a second book, “No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL,” under his pen name, Mark Owen, on Nov. 10. Mr. Luskin said Mr. Bissonnette had submitted the manuscript, as well as slides that he prepared for his corporate speeches, for Pentagon review. He said he knew of nothing improper about the speeches and expected the criminal investigation to be “resolved favorably.”
Mr. Bissonnette’s disclosures have been denounced by some other members of the elite SEAL team, who have watched as numerous former teammates have rushed into print with tales of their exploits. But Mr. Bissonnette questions why the Justice Department is singling him out when White House and military officials provided similar details for other books and a Hollywood film, Mr. Luskin said.
“Matt is not complaining about the fact that he was required to follow the rules,” Mr. Luskin said. “His beef is that others were not, and that they were leaking prodigiously for their own purposes.”
Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, said that he could neither confirm nor deny the investigation, but that it was well established that a federal employee who failed to clear a book could “be prevented from profiting” from its publication.
Mr. Luskin said Mr. Bissonnette had decided to write “No Easy Day” after Leon E. Panetta, then the C.I.A. director, urged some of the members of SEAL Team 6 to cooperate with the producers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” The filmmakers benefited from extensive assistance from the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.
“Matt’s view was: ‘Wait a minute. This is our story, not their story,’ ” Mr. Luskin said. “And why should that story be told through the mouths of others?”
Mr. Panetta could not be reached for comment.
Many longtime SEAL members dismissed Mr. Bissonnette’s concerns, saying that he was bound by oath to keep the raid secret and that the disclosures in his book and in an interview on “60 Minutes” in 2012 could have endangered SEAL units.
“It was ingrained in us to be ‘silent professionals,’ ” a retired SEAL Team 6 operator said. “Guys getting out and writing books, going on TV or doing other things this public flies against that core value.”
Mr. Bissonnette also arranged for SEAL Team 6 members to work on promotional films for a video game, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and 11 SEAL members were disciplined in late 2012 for releasing tactical information.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, agreed that when operators “come out and write a book, whether you mean to or not, you’re going to reveal tactics, techniques and procedures.”
When high-level officials talk about operations, they usually “talk about policy, decisions and strategy” and “are not revealing the mechanism,” Mr. Hendrix said. “They are at 30,000 feet. The mechanism is at ground zero.”
Mr. Hendrix also said that if Mr. Bissonnette and others ignored their pledges to safeguard secrets, others would feel less compelled to remain silent. “You don’t want to be the chump, the last guy standing, the Dudley Do-Right,” he said.
Rick Nelson, a former Joint Special Operations Command official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Panetta’s encouraging operators to talk to screenwriters was not an excuse. “That in no way provides justification for writing your own book,” he said. “If you think what you’re being asked is improper, you can go up the chain of command or call the inspector general. Two wrongs don’t make it right.”
Mr. Luskin countered that many details similar to Mr. Bissonnette’s about how the raid unfolded were included in a New Yorker article in August 2011; in “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” published by Mark Bowden in October 2012; and in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which premiered in December 2012.
“Given the movie, the Bowden book and the New Yorker piece, it’s very clear that a lot of people who had access to classified information talked in great detail about the raid,” he said.
Still, Mr. Luskin said Mr. Bissonnette, who rushed to release his book before Mr. Bowden’s, had apologized to officials for not letting the Pentagon vet his book, which would have delayed its publication. He said Mr. Bissonnette had received bad advice from another lawyer that he did not need to do so, and added that a negotiated settlement was still likely instead of charges.
John Ismay and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.
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