If ex-Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette discloses classified information in his upcoming tell-all on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, he could be subject to criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act, as we noted earlier. But even if he doesn't divulge any secrets, he's still got major legal problems. That is, according to a document surfaced by Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists.
That's because Special Forces personnel like Bissonnette are typically required to sign non-disclosure agreements that require them to submit manuscripts to the government before they publish books for the general public. These documents pertain to authors who had access to "sensitive compartmented information," or in laymen's terms, classified intelligence information, which the Osama bin Laden mission certainly qualifies as. And according to Aftergood, the precedent for the government going after author's like Bissonnette is fairly straightforward. "The government’s authority to enforce a non-disclosure agreement in this way was affirmed by a federal court most recently in the case of USA v. Ishmael Jones," he writes. "In that case, Jones (the pseudonym of a former CIA officer) published his manuscript without completing the prepublication review process." You can see a copy of this type of Pentagon non-disclosure agreement here.
So did Bissonnette sign one of these agreements? It's not completely clear. But an open letter written by Admiral William McRaven, and posted on Wired's Danger Room blog, last week suggests that he did. “Every member of the special-operations community with a security clearance signed a non-disclosure agreement that was binding during and after service in the military,” McRaven wrote. “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, then we will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution where appropriate.”
So what kind of retaliatory options are we talking about? According to the agreement, it could range from forfeiture of book profits to efforts to prevent the book from going to publish. Here's one of the relevant passages:
7. I understand that the United States Government may seek any remedy available to it to enforce this Agreement, including, but not limited to, application for a court order prohibiting disclosure of information in breach of this Agreement. I have been advised that the action can be brought against me in any of the several appropriate United States District Courts where the United States Government may elect to file the action. Court costs and reasonable attorneys' fees incurred by the United States
Clearly this is risky business for Bissonnette even if the books ends up being a total snooze-fest. The best thing he has going for him now though, according to Pat Rowan, a former Justice Department lawyer speaking with NBC News' Pete Williams, is his status as an American hero. "The government might be reluctant to prosecute a man who helped kill America's No. 1 terrorist enemy, unless the book reveals highly valuable and sensitive intelligence secrets," Rowan said. It's also worth nothing that Bissonnette earned five Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart during his military career.
The agreement appears in full below: