NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Just over a year after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, one of the members of the group commonly known as SEAL Team 6 has written a book about the mission called "No Easy Day." He used a pseudonym, Mark Owen, but he's been widely identified as Matt Bissonnette. And even before publication next week, the book is at the top of Amazon's sales list. In a review in today's Washington Post, Peter Bergen writes that this account provides fresh details on what really happened that night in Abbottabad.
We want to hear from current or former member of Special Forces units. What's the conversation you're having about this book? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Peter Bergen's the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden" and a director at the New America Foundation. He joins us here in Studio 3A.
Nice to have you back on the program.
PETER BERGEN: Thank you for inviting me, Neal.
CONAN: And what do we learn that's new?
BERGEN: I wouldn't say there's anything that is seismically new in the book. You know, I've interviewed dozens people with firsthand knowledge of the operation and visited inside the compound where bin Laden was - died, the only outside observer to do so. And, of course, I read this book with considerable trepidation, thinking maybe I would've, you know, did I get something substantially wrong? I think what the book does is, A, it's a first-person account, the first we have. B, it gives you, you know, a real flavor of what it was like to be there. I think it's well-written. I think it's a pretty accurate account. It slightly changes our understanding of how bin Laden was killed.
Now, I want to caveat before I explain how it changes that understanding, I want to caveat the fact that this happened on a moonless night in a neighborhood where the electricity had been turned off and all the SEALs were wearing night-vision goggles. So they're looking at sort of a sea of green, and a confusing situation where there's been a firefight 15 minutes earlier, and add a helicopter crash.
CONAN: And these, of course, are some of the most-trained observers in the world, but we've also learned the limits of eyewitness testimony. So go ahead.
BERGEN: Yeah. Eyewitnesses are often wrong. So what Bissonnette under the pseudonym Mark Owen says is that the point man, who was going up the stairs to bin Laden's third floor bedroom, saw him poke his head out and shot at him then, and it seems - well, he doesn't say this explicitly - wounds him at that point. Bin Laden falls or steps back into this bedroom. Bissonnette and another teammate run up the stairs or gingerly go up the stairs and shoot bin Laden as he's in his death throes.
Now, the previous account had bin Laden being dispatched with a so-called double-tap shot - one to his chest, one to his brain - inside the bedroom. So it's a slightly less heroic way of - for both - it's a slightly less heroic account. And I just would caveat it with, you know, there will be other accounts, I think, in the next years. And - but I don't - it doesn't really substantially change the big picture point, which is that bin Laden was unarmed. No one disagrees about that. He didn't reach for his weapons. He basically - this was not a glorious end. He didn't go down fighting.
CONAN: No, but it does raise questions about the - whether this was an assassination, and that's another area where this book shed some light.
BERGEN: It does, because Mark Owen - we'll use his pseudonym, here - says that when the SEALs were training in North Carolina, a lawyer from the White House or the Pentagon came, talked to them, and they asked this lawyer very directly: Is this an assassination mission? And the lawyer said: If bin Laden essentially conspicuously surrenders in his underwear, you know, you've got to detain him. And I - you know, I think that's not special to the bin Laden mission. I mean, that's kind of the uniform code of - you know, that's how the U.S. military would approach any situation. Bin Laden clearly didn't conspicuously surrender.
CONAN: So there's another moment in the training program. There was - we've heard so much about the doubt in the White House Situation Room. Is this bin Laden? Do we know for sure? And the betting was, well, maybe 60-40, around there, maybe 50-50.
CONAN: The team is briefed by a female CIA operative, who says she is 100 percent sure the pacer - the man identified as the pacer - is Osama bin Laden.
BERGEN: Well, Neal, I think that gets to - it's almost generational think at the agency. The more the people that have been involved in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction debacle, the more leery they were, obviously, about any kind of circumstantial case. The CIA analyst that you mentioned, Janet(ph), as she's identified in the book, is just out of college. She's five years out of college. She's been on the bin Laden account, and she's 100 percent certain.
What happened was the analysts who were most closely focused on bin Laden were more sure it was him. People who had either, you know, other, you know, things that they're focusing or had lived through the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, you know, disaster at the agency were a lot more leery. So she was an outlier 100 percent. Most people were in it, you know, somewhere between 40, 60. There were some analysts at 90, but, you know, 100 percent, that's pretty high.
CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who served or are currently in special forces. What's the conservation you're having about this new book about the bin Laden raid? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, Peter Bergen, it's important emphasize, this is a book about the raid. It does not go into background about the decision-making at the White House.
BERGEN: Not at all. I mean, it's a - what I say in 6The Washington Post review is it's a grounds-eye view. I mean, it's an operational view of what happened. In a way, you know, the raid was a cherry on a very large pudding that, you know, the intelligence story about finding bin Laden, you know, has been - goes on for years and years and really begins to take off in 2007 when they identified the real name of the courier.
But there are many, many, you know, there's an Agatha Christie story. There's a James Bond aspect to the story, which is what this book - new book has, and there's an Agatha Christie part of the story, which in a way my book, "Manhunt," is about. And then there's really - then there's a political decision-making part of the story about President Obama as a commander-in-chief. And, you know, he, you know, he made a very, very difficult decision against the advice of at least half of his most senior national security advisers, the department - the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Biden and General James Hoss Cartwright, his number two military adviser, were all, for different reasons, offering different advice.
CONAN: And it, of course, comes in the context of a presidential election campaign, and that can't be ignored either. And it's interesting you in your review quote one of the SEAL team operators coming out of Pakistan, saying, we just got this guy re-elected.
BERGEN: Right. Well, let's see if that's true.
CONAN: It also comes in the context where special forces operators have become involved in the presidential campaign.
BERGEN: Yeah. There's a 22-minute documentary called "Dishonorable Disclosures," which I have actually written a review of on CNN.com. I think this is a very poor piece of propaganda, basically.
Leaving aside the political views of the people involved, you know, the idea that President Obama is taking too much credit for this decision is crazy. I mean, you know, President Jimmy Carter took a lot of non-credit for a very similar kind of decision that turned him into a one-term president, which is the Iran hostage debacle and presidents are ultimately responsible.
At the end of the day, on April 28, 2011, President Obama went back into his residence at 7 p.m., having heard very conflicting kind of advice about what to do and made a decision. And it was a decision that - it's very easy after the event to say, well, that was an easy one to make. Do the thought experiment where another helicopter went down beyond just the one that went down, or where the Pakistani military responded and there was a firefight on the ground. Although bin Laden wasn't there, the whole - there are multiple possibilities that people had to think about and were worried about an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan as a result of the raid, similar to the attack that happened in 1979 when the embassy was burned to the ground. There were a lot of very legitimate concerns.
CONAN: And it's interesting, the book it's - was not submitted for censorship. The Navy, as you point out, does not require that. The special forces, though, do. They - according to Admiral McRaven, every member of the special forces community with a security clearance signed a non-disclosure agreement that was binding during and after service to the military. If the U.S. Special Operations Command finds that an active duty, retired or former service member violated that agreement and that exposure of information was detrimental to the safety of U.S. forces, we will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution when appropriate. The 6reaction has been, despite that statement, more muted it seems.
BERGEN: I think so. I mean, I read - I'm not an actual security lawyer, obviously, but I read the book very carefully. Just in the back of my mind, is there anything in here that might be problematic? And I didn't see it. I mean, even - I'll give you a simple example, Neal. We all know that there were stealth helicopters on the mission. The...
CONAN: We knew that that day when we saw the tail section.
BERGEN: Right. This doesn't mention that. It's not - and his narrative doesn't need that anyway. I mean, you know, the fact that he was there, the fact that he was on the team, you know, that's what people are - want to read about. And he doesn't get into, I think, tactics and procedures that would be problematic at all. And I think the Department of Defense - I mean, the Department of Defense would have to be, you know, there were some downsizing going after this guy. After all, he was part of the mission that killed bin Laden.
It would have to be kind of an egregious error on his part for the Defense Department to really mount a case. And I don't see that it exists. And I'm - the reason I think you put as muted is because the calculation is that, maybe there's something in there that's slightly worrisome or maybe this is just nothing at all. We're not going to go after this guy and have a case that drags on for years and perhaps even, you know, find that it's something that we lose.
CONAN: And his publisher said that most of the profits from the book will be donated to foundations that support members of SEAL families who've been killed.
BERGEN: To his great credit and there will be quite a lot of money. I mean, 575,000 of these books are being printed. That's a huge number.
CONAN: Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN, author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden." You can find a link to his review of "No Easy Day" at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
"No Easy Day," what does that mean?
BERGEN: It comes from a piece of U.S. Navy SEAL law that the only easy day was yesterday. And I mean - by the way, this book comes in the context of a whole slew of other SEAL memoirs, none of which have been prosecuted by the Department of Defense. Members of SEAL Team 6, former members have written about it, the most secretive part of the SEAL - most secretive SEAL unit.
We've had Eric Greitens, who's a Rhodes scholar and a SEAL, write about his experiences in the heart. In the (unintelligible), we've had Marcus Luttrell, who was part of the disastrous operation Red Wing, write a bestseller, "Lone Survivor." So, you know, there's a whole literature about - because people are fascinated by this.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. And David's with us from Chesapeake in Virginia.
DAVID: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
DAVID: Yeah. You know, when this first came out, broke the news through the White House, I guess, you know, my first account of it would be, you know, why would you go into great detail how bin Laden was killed to begin with? I mean, I won't expect the White House to come out with the full details anyway. Second of all, when the leaks came out, you know, the White House was accused of the leaks of, you know, violating some national security. The right side came out with all this, you know, discourse about the whole, you know, situation. And now, this guy's written book which claims to have the right details, knowledge of the happenings. And you don't hear one word of it on, you know, my thing is that this is just a political stunt.
CONAN: A political stunt by whom?
DAVID: Well, it's a political stunt, in my opinion, that it's, you know, based on what I know within certain small groups, that it's something that the right's putting out to throw discourse into the White House administration.
CONAN: And are you talking about this particular book? Or are you talking about the film that Peter was mentioning earlier?
DAVID: No, I'm talking about the book.
CONAN: The book? OK. Peter, is that a justified criticism?
BERGEN: I really don't see that in this book. I mean, Mark Owen makes it clear in the book that he's no fan of President Obama and nor do some of his teammates seem to be fans of President Obama. But Owen does sort of give Obama sort of grudging credit, I think, for giving a press conference, which doesn't get in too many details after the event and for making the decision. But I don't see it as a political book at all. I - it may have some political consequences in a sense that it may remind people that President Obama made this decision. But I don't see it as being - it doesn't have that feel. There are other books out there. There's book that is...
CONAN: I was just going to say that there are other books that don't fall into that category.
BERGEN: There's a book called "Leading from Behind" by a guy called Richard Miniter, which has a very lengthy chapter on the bid Laden raid, and it's basically wrong on almost every count. He says that Valerie Jarrett, the top Obama adviser, dissuaded President Obama three times in January, February and March, from 2011, from doing a raid. There is no evidence for that, amongst other claims it makes.
CONAN: Thanks very much...
DAVID: He did not...
CONAN: David, go ahead. I'm sorry.
DAVID: I was going to say, you know, you see, my point is this, some of this: As soon as the leaks that were - the White House were accused of with, you know, national security leaks and so forth and then also with the claims on bin Laden, the Navy SEAL groups came out - certain ones, certain individuals who came right out and support - or I should say against support of it and criticize the White House of all this, you know, to begin with. But then one of their owns want to come out with a book that's supposedly the ultimate 100 percent detail of the account of it. I mean, it makes no sense. Then you have a SEAL, you know, retired SEAL group who politically standing against the White House administration and6 Obama and his direct support of...
CONAN: And beyond...
DAVID: Great stuff.
CONAN: And, David, thanks very much for the call. But there's...
CONAN: As I think you mentioned in your piece, there is a code of silence. This is - these are people who provide themselves on professionalism and discretion.
BERGEN: Right. I mean, the special forces, you know, it's the quiet professionals. And certainly, this may not have done anything which puts him legal jeopardy but I think in some of his teammate - you know, SEAL Team 6 is a covert unit within the SEAL community, a rather elite - it's an elite within an elite. And there is a certainly kind of code of not silence and peace go against that. What effect that will have with his teammates, I'm not sure. But I imagine that that is a subject of probably some unhappiness.
CONAN: And he's been identified publicly. Is he in danger?
BERGEN: No, I don't think he's in danger. But I mean, the idea that he wasn't going to be publicly identified, Neal, was crazy. I mean, there are only 250 members in SEAL Team 6. How many of them retire every year? And how many of them come from Alaska? I mean, you know, you're talking about a very small group of people.
CONAN: Peter Bergen, thank you very much for your time today. Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN, his boo, "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden," and he's a director at the New America Foundation. He joined us here in Studio 3A.
Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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