Selling Someone Out: The Ethics of Writing about Your SEAL Team Operation to Kill Bin Laden

September 4th isn’t just the day after Labor Day in the U.S., it’s also the new publication date for No Easy Day, an autobiographical account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Nearly 600,000 copies of this book–allegedly written by an ex-Navy SEAL who participated in the raid of bin Laden’s Pakistan compound a little more than a year ago–will hit the streets. When bin Laden was killed, many raised ethical questions about the way the raid went down. I am now asking myself questions about the ethics of the writing and publication of this book.

A ceremony for 17 fallen U.S. Navy SEALs, held on August 25, 2011, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman John Paul Kotara II.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this Navy SEAL operation. Longtime readers may recall that, immediately after bin Laden was killed, I blogged about my curiosity about the person who pulled the trigger. “I eagerly await the story of this brave soldier who accomplished something that led to spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House, a few short miles from my home,” I wrote. “He has a story to tell.”

Now one of the SEALs has told this story, and I’m not sure I want to read it.

I’m writing my critical thesis for my MFA in Writing on the topic of whether in writing about people in our lives, we are, as Joan Didion says, just “selling someone out.” Just look at who this author may have “sold out” in allowing this book to be published:

  • His employer. By most news accounts, few if anyone in the U.S. government knew that this book was being written. Word first spread when the publisher began promoting the book, and it was being promoted under a pen name, so it wasn’t even clear which SEAL may have written it. The Navy has suggested it may take legal action against the author for potential violation of a nondisclosure agreement. But beyond the law, did the author have a moral obligation to inform the Navy that he was writing this book, or at least share relevant sections with Navy officials? After all, he has this story to tell–and sell–because his employer put him in a position to do so.
  • His colleagues. I am assuming that when that SEAL team was working its way through bin Laden’s compound, the first thing on the mind of each of the SEALs was not the question, “I wonder which one of us will write a book about this?” Teams like this succeed when the trust is total. How can you totally trust a fellow SEAL if you know your actions could find their way into his bestseller a year from now? I don’t know to what extent this author shared his plans to write a book with his former colleagues, or if he did share, at what point in the process he did so. Did he show them his writing beforehand? Did he give them editing privileges, or at least ask them if he should take something out or change something? And what implications will this have for future SEAL teams and operations? Is that something the author should have worried about?

Presumably there are other people who will be in his book that could be listed here. The focus of my critical thesis is on the moral implications of writing about someone who is still alive, so others could include the author’s family members, childhood friends, even the survivors he left behind in bin Laden’s compound. But the two bullet points above seem to rise to the top.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do wonder if the author himself asked them. I’d feel better knowing if he did. Because on some level I do feel each individual has to choose the answers that are right for him or her, but I would hope the author at least asked the questions first.

What are your thoughts on this? Did the author sell out his employer, or his former SEAL teammates? Are you okay with him allowing his story to be published? And what would you have done in preparation for publication if you had been this author?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

29 Responses to “Selling Someone Out: The Ethics of Writing about Your SEAL Team Operation to Kill Bin Laden”

  1. Patrick,

    I am also troubled by Bissonnette publishing his account of the event. I additionally have trouble with his attempt to use a pseudonym.

    Your two points regarding his employer and his colleagues are spot-on. His employer, ultimately the Commander-in-Chief, put him in a situation of trust and his account, it appears (and appearances are everything), breaches that trust. Additionally, his colleagues, SEAL Team Six, according to Bergen, a trusting group of “quiet professionals,” have an implied code of silence that should be protected for the sake of their sustained integrity. Bissonnette broke that silence.

    Setting aside issues of legality, arguably other moments of confidence in history are recorded for posterity. It’s how we come to know our history; our story marinates with time. People write memoirs and first-hand accounts often, and we’re eager to listen, but the accounts resonate best when the dust has settled and it’s clear the recordings result from history’s obligations rather than an author’s narcissism. A small example of this is Richard Allen’s account of Reagan’s choice of Bush as his vice president: http://nyti.ms/N3sx3k. Certainly Reagan had an expectation of trust among his advisors as they deliberated over whether to choose Ford, but twenty years later, the impact of telling this story is less immediate, and the anecdote is instead an interesting account for the history books. Bissonnette’s account of ground operations for such a sensitive mission in the heart of a war we’re still fighting is likely to have an immediate effect on current operations. There’s no pressing need to tell this story; Osama bin Laden is dead, and we’re trying to finish what we started.

    I believe Bissonnette employing a pseudonym is borne from cowardice rather than a concern for safety. He didn’t want his employer to know which one of SEALs did the deed, and it’s naive of him to think they wouldn’t find out. Given the Navy had no idea the book was to be published until the publishing company began promoting it, it’s clear Bissonnette deliberately deceived them, likely understanding that his actions would be seen as a breach of trust.

    The Osama bin Laden story is one that should be told, but we need to bear in mind, especially in the new media environment, that the threads of history are best weaved deliberately and patiently.

    Corey

    • Corey, you make a good point with Richard Allen’s book. I devour historical biographies, both ones on centuries past but also closer to the present. And yes, the custom seemed to be that the books that would come out immediately after someone’s departure were sugar-coated, and it would take time before the individual would speak more frankly. That made sense. (I remember Stockman’s book on his Reagan experience being an exception to that.) I don’t know that the sensitivity you’re describing there exists today, however. And as to there not being a pressing need for publishing, who knows, maybe Bissonnette wanted to get a book out before one of his teammates, or his agent told him his sales wouldn’t be as good if he waited.

      One thing that I noted in the coverage was that he left the service in April, which means he had to have already started the book while he was serving. That bothers me.

      And yes, it’s absurd to think people wouldn’t figure out which one wrote it. I mean, really.

      Thank you for this thoughtful and informed comment.

  2. Hard, i haven’t looked into it; whistle blower, egoist, who knows; but they do take oaths!

  3. Soiunds like just more in a long history of greed, enabled by cowardice, executed recklessly and above all, yes, naively. This guy honestly thinks he’s not going to be outed? I can see another “heartfelt” apology coming up. Puh-lease!

    • I agree it was absurd to think he wouldn’t be outed. He has been, according to media reports. Corey notes his name above, but the book is still coming out with the pseudonym.

      I don’t know if I’d apply cowardice to a Navy SEAL, but I guess it can come in different forms–the bravery to face death, and the bravery to admit that you may have sold out your fellow soldiers. Although, to be fair, I don’t know what any of them think about this book. Maybe they’ll like it. That’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve been studying memoir, it’s hard to predict how people will react to being depicted in print.

  4. In the end, we who live in America, all have the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Whether you agree or disagree with the content does not alter that right. If there is a legal issue then that is a different story. If your opposing position is based upon your ethics, your morality or your intent for “political correctness” or if you have a problem with that specific content or if you take issue with the “reasons” in your opinion of why the book was written in the first place, then just don’t buy the book. That is your right.

    • No, in the end, we who disrespect these rights, are going to lose them somehow. Don’t you think that we, with all our rights and freedoms, should be inching beyond “rights” and into “responsibility”? What good are all these rights if all they do is invite people to exercise their lower nature? I’m sure that our rights were granted us so we might explore a more moral and creative way to live. Woe is the writer who doesn’t question the conventional wisdom of everything this society is standing upon. With all due respect, I think you may have forgotten that this is a “writers” blog, and not a “consumers”.

      • PJ, fully agree that we all need to question conventional wisdom. We grow as individuals, as artists, and as a society.

      • PJ – No sir. I did not forget that this is a writer’s blog nor have I neglected to think of the personal responsibilities that go along with our freedoms. It is indeed unfortunate that we live in a world where some people hold lower expectations of themselves, both in their representations as well as in their works and deeds.

        Secondly, “rights” do not invite people to exercise any nature, lower or otherwise. It is the person who decides how to “behave” in the manner they do and it is also the person who chooses an action, right or wrong, and then takes that action based upon their ethics, morals, values and beliefs,as well as the choices they have made.

        Third, I choose to think that most people tend to act with the original intention of producing something which is good in nature. Now, I may not know what that good is, however if I seek long enough and question enough I may find that good. Any presupposition on my part before knowing that good is just that, a presupposition. It is in judging, prior to knowing, that false understandings arise.

        Fourth, in the case of Bissonnette, who is to say what his intention or purpose actually was or is? Do we listen to the media as Corey so eloquently pointed out or do we seek the truth from him personally or through his writings? I have not read his book nor do I intend to. At the same time, I am not going to defend him nor deny him his rights to print his story. If his first-hand observations, his truth of the events involving Bin Laden, are written as observed and his words are written from his truth (hopefully they are not editorially altered by his publisher) and they are contradictory to what the press has regurgitated to us, then what is one to do? Be angry at the press, the editor or to be angry with him for speaking his truth? If that truth is different than what a another person believes to be true then do we deny him the right to express his truth?

        On the matter of ethics, if Bissonnette is found to be guilty of any military law or if he is found guilty of breaching any existing non-disclosure, then he by all rights deserves judgment according to the law or laws that were broken. In this way the ethics involved are limited to his ethical, moral and legal position and in his acceptance of holding to those standards which are conventionally held throughout the writer’s community.

        Aside from the legal aspects of this conversation, during his interview on Sixty Minutes, he flatly denied any intention to bring in politics into the equation as a justification to go to print. In fact, he outright stated that was not his intention at all and that he did not want any political interactivity whatsoever. He spoke clearly and succinctly about this point.

        To suggest self-aggrandizement as a motive without having read the book or spoken to him is assuming that he operates from a lower ethical position than some who would consider this unhealthy or outside of accepted conventional values. I think it improper to suggest this was his motivation.

        In fact, I find it rather amazing that many choose to judge without having read the book or personally interviewed him with any questions they may have. In this regard, who is ethically correct, he who writes a book or the person acting as a judge and a jury without having read it? Truth can sometimes create fear or it can present a level of exposure that is contradictory to what one has already released into the public. What is there to be afraid of? Who will be exposed?

        • Spring… very well put. Thank you for such a thoughtful rebuttal. Great arguments, great post!

        • Corey Barenbrugge Reply August 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm

          This is a great argument. I would typically consider it premature to pass judgement on a piece like Bissonnette’s, but there is a lot of information already out there, without the benefit of actually reading the book, that does allow the layperson to weigh in. Of course, it’s all basically various versions of “truth.”

          I think, based on the known customs of SEAL information sharing, as well as the possible need to be tight-lipped while operations in Afghanistan continue, we can form an opinion as to whether we consider it ethical for the author and the publisher to put out this book.

          But, as Patrick rightly points out, we don’t know if there was a more pressing need for the publication. The only reasons I can come up with are specific to the author. I’d venture to say there likely isn’t a compelling reason (other a greater possible interest from the general public, which is demonstrated by the book replacing Fifty Shades of Gray on the bestseller list) for an account of ground operations to be published so soon after the mission. I’d love to see a documentary in 25 years featuring all the members of the SEAL team, if they are ready to talk.

          I also agree with Patrick that sales likely aren’t a good measure of disapproval. I’ll admit to being interested in what the book says, just not interested enough to buy it (though I might borrow it from a friend).

    • Corey Barenbrugge Reply August 31, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      I agree that I can express my disapproval by not buying the book (I don’t plan to), but similar to the author’s right, we have the right to dispute the ethics in play.

      This conversation is a worthwhile one that our points help to move forward, toward the ideal P.J. mentions: responsibility. Your argument (“then don’t buy it”) is frequently employed in today’s culture, and I believe to our detriment. It absconds responsibility and obfuscates the truth. By expressing ourselves individually, with our wallets, and with no real show of demonstration, we buy out of a conversation that may require deeper thinking than the surface level thought our media consumption promotes. There’s a difference between saying “I’m upset!” and saying “I’m upset because…”

      • I would also note that sales may not be the best way to measure approval of the author’s ethics. I can fully imagine people buying the book because they are curious to read the story (I am very curious), but they do so holding their nose because, at the end of the day, they disagree with the writing of the book to begin with.

        Here’s an analogy that may be a bit of a stretch. I love Raspberry Zingers, and they are ridiculously bad for me. It would be better for me if Hostess (or its original maker, Dolley Madison) wouldn’t make them, and then I wouldn’t be tempted because they wouldn’t exist. But when I see them, too often I do buy them and eat them, guiltily.

    • Thanks, Don. As you know, I’m an ardent defender of both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And yes, we all will have our own positions on the ethics of his actions, but I think it’s worth discussing, and this discussion will help me answer my own thoughts on what I may someday write and publish.

  5. Thanks, Patrick, for raising this issue in such a balanced and thoughtful way. My take on the book is, if there were some pressing ethical need to publish so soon, then do it. For example, if Bin Laden’s death involved torture, or the operation were terribly mishandled or caused a meltdown in our relations with Pakistan. Those things apparently did not occur. So why publish the book when he (presumably) still is a member of our armed forces? Self aggrandizement seems to be the only answer.

    • Anne, this is an interesting angle you bring in.

      My understanding from news accounts is that he left the Navy in April, but as I noted in a comment above, the math would suggest he was working on the book while still in the service. As a public servant myself who has to operate under ethics rules, I know that the restrictions would have been even tougher on him were he still serving.

  6. Patrick, thanks for posting a well thought out and well taken post on this topic. As a former law firm employee (who just happened to work on nondisclosure agreements), that legal point alone may cause our author enough trouble. However, the tougher point here is the one you raise of trust, morality and confidentiality among team members. I think we must all stop and think how we would feel if we had carried out such a secret and high level operating, believing that no one would ever know of our involvement, and then a team member wrote a book and published it. I don’t know if anonymity has been used to protect team members but the slightest fact in truth can be researched and families put at risk. Ethics rules would say that he has breached too many to allow him to escape any punishment despite at this time. I think my greatest concern is for the other team members and their families, not to mention the general failure in our society to value ethics and trust.

    • Hi Sherrey, thank you for your kind words. Yes, it’s safe to assume that the team members didn’t anticipate they would find themselves in a book a year later, because that kind of thing just wasn’t done before now. I agree that we must hope that no individual or family is put at risk.

      To take this even broader, in a world of still and video cameras on phones, we almost have to assume that anything we say or do in public could be broadcast somewhere. Most of us aren’t interesting enough or well known enough for anyone to want to see our private moments broadcast — I’ve never played strip pool in Vegas like Prince Harry did, but if I had and there was photographic evidence, TMZ wouldn’t buy it — but I wonder if we’re entering an era now in which we must always assume we’re being watched. Orwell thought it would be the government, but maybe it’s us.

      Okay, that went to a dark place!🙂

  7. As a new reader (just found this blog today) I am really interested in this chain, and I’m enjoying the well thought-out comments that have been posted. Never having been called shy, I thought I’d dive right in. I hope you don’t mind!

    Patrick,

    I think we are well into that era you spoke of, with people jumping at the chance to lose more and more of their privacy. We buy smart devices that allow apps to turn cameras and other monitoring tools on and off, and home security systems that also allow us to remotely turn on and adjust cameras in our own homes. We subscribe to services like OnStar with two-way communication in our vehicles, and we use navigation systems that beacon our location.

    Concerning the original topic of the post, the ethics question the book raises isn’t new. Everyday I have the same reactions you are describing to stories in the news that are often designed to titillate more than inform. I fear that many newswriters fail to exercise good judgment or even to take a fleeting moment to consider the repercussions or the impact their work has on their subjects. It seems like news is sort of a quantum state, by describing an event or activity, you change it, and generally not for the better!

    The other really interesting thing that this chain brought back to my mind (although it has become a near constant companion anyway) is the difference between perception and truth, and the philosophical idea of truth in the first place. As I read PJ and String’s exchange above (so refreshing to see differing views handled in such an intelligent fashion, by the way!), I considered the various versions of truth that come up: there is the government’s version of the truth vs. Bissonnette’s version, vs. the media versionvs. the version of the Pakistani government and so on. Each entity is certain their truth is the real truth, and that there can only be one truth. Is there really a “ground truth” for anything that is perceived by humans, or is the very fact that we are perceiving it using our limited (and biased) powers of perception somehow changing its quantum state, so that there can be no true “enlightenment”?

    Whoa, went way more philosophical there than I intended!

    • Michelle, I appreciated your comments regarding the difference between perception and truth. I’d never thought about this particular issue in this way, probably because of my heavy exposure in the legal community to the ethics question always being the trump card. You have certainly opened a door on a wide ranging discussion of whose truth is the truth. Will be interesting to see where this goes!

      Sherrey

    • Welcome to The Artist’s Road, Michele!

      I love how you jumped right in! In my “What is This?” page, I write that The Artist’s Road an ongoing conversation among the blog’s author and its readers, and you see that happening here. And yes, it’s remarkable, based on how the Internet is today, how civil the comments are, willing to challenge without getting personal or insulting.

      We have lawyers who read The Artist’s Road, and I’m sure they could tell us how unreliable eyewitnesses are in criminal cases. In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach claims there is an old Russian proverb along the lines of “He lies like an eyewitness.” But it hits the bigger point you make, that truth is relative, or, more precisely, we all have our own truth that is true to us but can’t be anyone else’s because it is built on our own perception and bias.

      I cite Roorbach because I’m reading a lot about the memoir genre for this critical thesis I’m writing, so let me cite perhaps my favorite author’s note point on this, by Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life, after mentioning family members who reviewed the manuscript before publication. “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thanks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of those points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it a truthful story.”

      A common memoirist response to your point, Michele, would be that we should read Bissonnette’s book, and then wait for a book from a bin Laden follower who survived the assault, and then one from Bissonnette’s superior officer, etc., and then piece our own reality together from those works. That is, of course, what historians and biographers do, going back to primary sources. I’m willing to bet this won’t be the last book written by someone with a connection to this story.

      • Another point on memoir and truth, this from Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir: “Perhaps, as memoirists, we have to make our peace with the possibility that there is no more an absolute truth in memoir than there is in life. Anna Akhmatova said that every attempt to produce a memoir amounts to falsification. Perhaps our task, then, is to decide where, in each story, the integrity–the honest heart of the story–rests, while at the same time giving due respect to the events as we remember them.”

        • Patrick, appreciate these great quotes on memoir. My struggle in writing mine has been the fine line between my truth and that of other family members. In essence, how do each of our memory banks hold the stories of our individual lives with mom? I do my best to clarify that the story I’m telling is mine, and no one else’s, and that I do not want to write my siblings’ stories. And yet . . .

          • Sherrey, I really feel your conundrum re teasing out which threads of the story are yours and which are colored by those of others. I fell of the board almost as soon as I arrived last week due to the death of my grandmother. As I wrote her obituary deep in the night, I found myself asking a similar question: Which of my memories of my grandmother will most resonate with those who knew her, and tell just enough for those who didn’t to get a feel for who she was and why she was special.

  8. “As I read PJ and String’s exchange above (so refreshing to see differing views handled in such an intelligent fashion, by the way!),” All I can do, after reading your post and the insightful comments here, is stand back and admire the way you’ve each articulated your points. Kudos.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Selling Someone Out: The Ethics of Writing about Your SEAL Team Operation to Kill Bin Laden | Ethics | Scoop.it - September 2, 2012

    […] September 4th isn’t just the day after Labor Day in the U.S., it’s also the new publication date for No Easy Day, an autobiographical account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Nearly 6…  […]

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