The book & the bin Laden mystery

In the lead-up to the recent Democratic convention, Vice President Joe Biden issued a rallying cry to parry the Republicans' "Are you better off now than four years ago?" jibe. His bumper sticker slogan "Osama bin Laden is dead; General Motors is alive" was intended, of course, to use the demise of bin Laden as metaphor, metric and shorthand for the Obama administration's foreign policy and its effective pursuit of national security.

This rallying cry was designed to serve two purposes: to be a clear statement of US success in dealing with international terror networks and to affirm the Obama administration's success in that regard.

At about the same time as this narrative has been gaining some purchase, however, an alternative saga has come along as well. No Easy Day, the new book by Matt Bissonnette, the former Navy SEAL and member of the SEAL team that actually carried out the raid, has just been released. Bissonnette's book chronicles the operation that attacked the Pakistani town where bin Laden was in hiding and describes the al-Qaeda leader's final moments as well as much detail on the training of SEAL units and their tactics and techniques.

When pre-release copies of Bissonnette's book first became available, the author's earliest forays onto the book publicity circuit seemed to include the wagging an accusatory finger at President Obama for claiming that "he" had killed bin Laden (although the author also claimed he was not taking the president to the woodshed and that he and his unit colleagues respected the president in his role as commander-in-chief). But he also took the Pentagon PR machine to task for initially claiming bin Laden had resisted being captured and had been killed at that point - or, at the very least, bin Laden had been on the verge of resisting and was reaching for an automatic rifle to fight off the attackers when he was shot.

In his book, the author writes, "It was strange to see such an infamous face up close. Lying in front of me was the reason we had been fighting for the last decade. It was surreal trying to clean blood off the most wanted man in the world so that I could shoot his photo. I had to focus on the mission, right now we needed some good quality photos." This, of course, contradicts the previously released official version in which officials said the al-Qaeda head had been shot only after he had returned to his bedroom, giving rise to fears he was about to get hold of a weapon.

Now, in a CBS television interview on Sunday's 60 Minutes prime time news show, Bissonnette has restated his views and added further details.

Beyond these fisticuffs with the Pentagon over how the raid actually happened, two more controversies have come out of the publication of Bissonnette's book. The first is a squabble with Pentagon authorities over what they claim was the unauthorized use of classified material in this book. (Hmm, shades of the security establishment's quarrel with Frank Snepp and his book, Decent Interval, over the final evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon back in 1975.) The second concerns some heretofore never before described activities by the SEALs, such as their routine use of a powerful drug, Ambien, to manage sleep patterns in advance of operations like the bin Laden raid.

The argument for the use of Ambien is that men on special SEAL operations must move at a moment's notice across many time zones; travel in uncomfortable, cramped troop air transports; train for night operations; and generally operate with little regular sleep routines - hence the need to get in some zzzz's whenever they can. But Ambien is not quite warm milk with a tot of brandy to help you to fall into the embrace of Morpheus. There can be some really serious side effects, including incapacitating hallucinations.

The drug has actually been in the news before. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and his cousin Kerry Kennedy have both had trouble with the law after taking Ambien and driving. And now, in just the past week, former national television news anchor Tom Brokaw ended up in hospital after using it while being on reporting assignments at the Democratic National Convention.

The security leaks, of course, may well be the more serious issue. Bissonnette, who wrote the book under the pseudonym Mark Owen, charges bin Laden was shot as soon as he poked his head out of his bedroom - in distinct contrast to the official version. In response, the Pentagon said it may sue the author for releasing military secrets without authorization.

Bissonnette's book had not been reviewed prior to publication by the Pentagon, CIA or the White House - and officials are now saying criminal charges could well come from the improper disclosure of secret information. The Department of Defence's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, has written to Bissonnette to tell him "in the judgment of the Department of Defence, you are in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed." Johnson's letter added - rather ominously - that the Defence Department is considering "all remedies legally available to us."

Meanwhile, CNN said that the same day the book hit bookstore shelves, CNN had obtained a copy of a message from the SEALs commander to the unit that had carried out the raid. In that message, Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, wrote he was "disappointed, embarrassed and concerned" that troops were openly speaking and writing about their secret work. "We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions," Pybus had written to his troops.

The Pentagon's concern seems to be about the information included in the book that is about how the SEALs are organized, trained and operate, rather than the specifics of the bin Laden mission - much of that is already out in the public following all the swaggering from official sources after the raid anyway. But a Pentagon official has told journalists that although the revelations in Bissonnette's book probably do not compromise national security today, "do we talk about this stuff? No."

Bissonnette's lawyer has replied that Bissonnette had "sought legal advice about his responsibilities before agreeing to publish his book and scrupulously reviewed the work to ensure that it did not disclose any material that would breach his agreements or put his former comrades at risk." But Pentagon officials argue that the pre-launch release of advance copies of the book and the lack of time given to the Pentagon to carry out a review of the material made it impractical to ask the publisher to withhold the book. In the face of all this threatening lawyer talk, Bissonnette may just need a bit more of that Ambien to get through the nights ahead.

The ultimate irony of course is that the US military has not banned copies of Bissonnette's book from military exchanges - where it will undoubtedly fly off the shelves to be devoured by military readers. The publisher has upped its print run from 300,000 to 575,000 copies - sensing an obvious bestseller, before even thinking about paperback and audio book versions. Of course there will soon enough be a movie version in the wings as well. Count on it.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.