WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering legal action against a former Navy SEAL whose book describes insider details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but it has not made a final judgment on whether the book actually reveals secrets, a spokesman said Friday.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the author, Matt Bissonnette, was deemed to be in violation of two nondisclosure agreements that he signed in 2007 by failing to submit the book for an official security review before it was published. Bissonnette's lawyer on Friday disputed this, saying he believes the decorated former SEAL has "earned the right to tell his story."
Little would not say what legal options the Pentagon is considering or when it might take action.
"I write to formally advise you of your material breach and violation of your agreements, and to inform you that the department is considering pursuing against you, and all those acting in concert with you, all remedies legally available to us in light of this situation," Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, wrote in a letter faxed to the author Thursday through his publisher.
In response, Robert D. Luskin of the law firm Patton Boggs wrote to Johnson on Friday that his firm is representing Bissonnette and asserting that he is not in breach of his nondisclosure agreements.
Luskin, who represented White House aide Karl Rove in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity in the Bush administration, said the author 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. He remains confident that he has faithfully fulfilled his duty."
Little suggested that if Bissonnette were to stop the book's official release, scheduled for next week, that might be a remedy. Some advance copies have been circulating, and the Pentagon obtained one last week. It has since been reviewing it for any classified information and to determine what, if any, legal action should be taken, Little said.
"The onus is on the author," Little said, while declining to spell out what the author must do.
But the publisher was firm on Friday.
"At this time, we see no reason to change our plans," Dutton spokesperson Christine Ball.
It was highly unlikely that the government would try to halt publication of the book itself, considering the book is already in the public domain and media reports have summarized its contents.
The Justice Department could go after the profits of the book in a civil proceeding. Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined any comment on the book Friday.
Retired CIA agent Frank Snepp published a book about his CIA activities in South Vietnam without submitting it to the agency for prepublication review. The government sued to collect all profits and the court ruled in the government's favor. The government did not contend that Snepp's book contained any classified material.
In its 6-3 ruling in 1980, the Supreme Court said "undisputed evidence in this case shows that a CIA agent's violation of his obligation to submit writings about the agency for prepublication review impairs the CIA's ability to perform its statutory duties."
If the Pentagon determines the Bin Laden book does disclose secrets, that would open the possibility of bringing federal criminal charges against Bissonnette. The potential charges and penalties would depend largely on what type of secrets were disclosed.
Little declined to describe the Pentagon's assessment of the contents of the book, but he later said it had not reached "any final conclusions" about whether secrets were revealed.
The Pentagon's position was presented by Johnson in a letter transmitted to the author through his New York publisher, Penguin Group (USA)'s Dutton imprint.
Johnson said Bissonnette's nondisclosure agreements obliged him to "never divulge" classified information.
"This commitment remains in force even after you left the active duty Navy," Johnson wrote. He said the author left active duty "on or about April 20, 2012," which was nearly one year after the May 2011 raid.
By signing the agreements, Bissonnette acknowledged his awareness, Johnson wrote, that "disclosure of classified information constitutes a violation of federal criminal law." He said it also obliged the author to submit his manuscript for a security review by the government before it was published. The Pentagon has said the manuscript was not submitted for review, although it obtained a copy last week. The Associated Press purchased one on Tuesday.
The Pentagon has not revealed how it got its copy.
Johnson said that after reviewing a copy of the book, "No Easy Day," the Pentagon concluded that the author is in "material breach and violation" of the agreements, but did not say explicitly that the book reveals secrets.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Thursday that all who are entrusted with classified information are obliged to protect it.
"Whether it is administration officials or special forces operators, national security leaks are wrong and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible," King said.
A special operations advocacy group, Special Operations-OPSEC, which has criticized President Barack Obama for alleged White House leaks and for making the bin Laden raid a national security centerpiece of his re-election campaign, said the author should be held to the same standard as others in protecting secrets.
"However, the Obama administration is applying a dishonorable double standard with a lightning quick threat to prosecute a five-time winner of the Bronze Star while dragging its feet in identifying and charging senior administration officials who have purposefully leaked classified information," the president of the group, Scott Taylor, said Friday.
Taylor's group on Monday called on the Justice Department to block the book's publication and distribution until it can be given a "proper review" by government authorities.
Johnson addressed his letter to Mr. "Mark Owen," using quotation marks to signify that this is the author's pseudonym.
The Pentagon did not release copies of the nondisclosure agreements that it said Bissonnette had signed in 2007. A spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Steve Warren, said they were being withheld because they include the author's real name and his signature.
In his book, Bissonnette wrote that the SEALs spotted bin Laden at the top of a darkened hallway and shot him in the head even though they could not tell whether he was armed. Administration officials have described the SEALs shooting bin Laden only after he ducked back into a bedroom because they assumed he might be reaching for a weapon.
AP writers Kimberly Dozier, Pete Yost and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.