Under the Radar

No Easy Day: Art and OPSEC Violations

Few books have hit shelves in recent years with as much controversy surrounding them as No Easy Day.  Written under the pen name of Mark Owen by a former member of DEVGRU – better known as SEAL Team Six since the Osama Bin Laden takedown– the book is the first truly inside account of the mission that killed the chief terrorist behind 9/11.

That the book was published without the approval of the Department of Defense – something the Pentagon has made a very public spectacle out of – has created a buzz that has earned No Easy Day the kind of publicity that money can’t buy as well as the ire of a large segment of active duty troops and veterans who take their non-disclosure agreements a bit more seriously than Owen seems to.

Owen – whose real name is Matt Bissonette – attempts to head off his OPSEC-concerned critics by explaining in the book’s preface that he avoided endangering those still in harm’s way by changing names and timeframes and by using only information that was already publically available.  He also states that he hired a “former special operations attorney to review the manuscript to ensure that it was free from mention of forbidden topics and that it cannot be used by sophisticated enemies as a source of sensitive information to compromise or harm the United States.”

And while Owen goes to great lengths to summarize his motivation to put pen to paper about the Bin Laden raid as simply an effort to get the story right – a story he says has been mangled by the White House and others, the world of OPSEC is not quite as nuanced.  In the world of classified information there are only two kinds of actions:  those that help the nation’s enemies and those that hurt the nation’s enemies.

Whether or not each factoid can be parsed out as “publically available” the fact that one of the raid’s participants has connected the dots is in itself a violation of classification protocols.  No Easy Day lashes up orders of battle, intel fusion methods, weapons choices (and SEAL procurement methodology), and mission planning sequences.  There are insights behind timelines and rules of engagement.  In sum, the book goes further than any of the recent flurry of war autobiographies in telling how things really are.

And that gives the Pentagon a case in terms of accusing Owen of violating his NDA.  Active duty or not, some military secrets are forever.

But at another level – one removed from concerns associated with the public airing of procedures and tactics – No Easy Day is a modern day work of art as well as a necessary re-telling of a story that was rendered too slick at the hands of the Pentagon and Obama Administration PR machines.

Owen is ably assisted by his co-writer Kevin Maurer in getting beyond the cliché bravado of the SEAL non-fiction genre to capture the humanity of those who perform the military’s most dangerous and consequential missions.  After a formulaic start –obligatory chapters dealing with the author’s young life and early SEAL training – No Easy Dayfinds its voice through its descriptions of the men who’ve dedicated their young lives to the pursuit of bad guys and the environments in which they find themselves.   The cast of characters is lovingly presented – from the other members of the DEVGRU family to the female CIA analyst who’s dedicated her young life to finding Osama Bin Laden – and that presentation serves the stage upon which they interact very well.

This is especially true as the book describes the Bin Laden raid.  No Easy Day completely explodes the myths that have surrounded the mission:  There was no extended firefight as the team worked its way to Bin Laden’s room.  The sequence of events presented by Owen show that there was no intent to capture anyone living at the compound alive.  Women and youngsters were killed during the raid.  Bin Laden is shot at medium range without being fully ID’d – guilty of being a man on the third floor of the compound – and then again at pointblank range a few times to make sure he’s absolutely dead.

The narrative isn’t tidy but it’s no less heroic.

Overall, OPSEC violations notwithstanding, No Easy Day provides details and insights that show the real miracle of the Bin Laden raid is the fact is was executed by human beings.  And that the SEALs succeeded against the realities of being human makes them all the more amazing.

At once a security breach and a must-read, No Easy Day is a definitive reading of the definitive mission of the post-9/11 wars.

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