News & Politics

7 Tips for Navy SEAL Turned Author Mark Owen on How to Stay Out of Prison

An open letter to the author of “No Easy Day,” who may soon face legal action for allegedly violating nondisclosure agreements in writing his book.

Dear Mark Owen (a.k.a. Matt Bissonnette),

On Tuesday, I wrote a review of your new book,
No Easy Day, about your role in the raid that killed
Osama bin Laden. There are few easy days
ahead of you. The government apparently is considering whether
to take legal action
against you for allegedly violating the terms of two nondisclosure
agreements you signed while
still in uniform that the Pentagon says remain in force today.
And this administration,
as you may already know, is not too fond of employees who talk
sensitive national
security operations without asking permission.

The Pentagon says there are secrets in your
It seems officials are preparing to move against you, possibly
with an eye to indicting
you. (They’ve already determined they can’t stop the sale of
your book.) I’m not a
lawyer, but I’ve written about leak investigations,
the government prosecutors who run

and the pledges government employees often sign to keep quiet about their work. We journalists also have to be
cautious these days
about whom we talk to and what secrets we publish. So here are
some tips learned in
the field that you might keep in mind as you mount your

1) Behave honorably in public.

It will be politically difficult for the government to attack a hero who helped kill
Osama bin Laden. It would be much easier to go after a loudmouth who thumps his chest
and sticks his finger in the eye of the President. The Pentagon will decide whether
to prosecute you in large part based on how you acquit yourself in the promotion of
your book, and principally during your media tour, which kicks off this Sunday on

60 Minutes.
Of course, you may just opt to keep quiet. Your publisher tells us that as of now,
you’re not planning to give any more interviews.

2) Don’t sweat the bin Laden material. Worry about all the other stuff you wrote.

The Pentagon claims you revealed some secrets in the chapters about the bin Laden
raid. I’ve read the book, and I can’t find much that wasn’t already revealed by members
of the administration. But the first half of your book chronicles many other operations
in which you took part, including raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, a failed mission
to rescue an American POW, the successful rescue of a shipping captain who was taken
by pirates, and even operations you say the United States conducted with Pakistan,
inside that country. I doubt you were authorized to talk about any of this, and you
might have said something that gives the government grounds to come after you without
even touching the bin Laden mission.

3) Talk to your publisher’s lawyer.

Presumably, an attorney for Penguin Group (USA) went through your manuscript line
by line looking for copyright infringements, possible libel, and other issues lawyers
routinely check before a book goes to press. This lawyer works for your publisher,
not for you, and is under no obligation to ensure that you abide by the secrecy agreements
you signed with the government. If in the course of your back-and-forth with this
lawyer, which probably took several hours, if not days, you discussed any information
about those agreements and whether you were breaching them, that information could
be discoverable by the government. Call me paranoid, but you should ask this lawyer:
How much of our communication is covered by attorney-client privilege? Are your discussions
limited to the scope of this lawyer’s job, which was to review your manuscript for
legal liabilities to your publisher, or does it cover a lot more ground than that?

4) Consider playing the gray mail card.

A big reason cases of unauthorized disclosures rarely go to court is because the accused
has an opportunity to bring forth information that might reveal even more secrets.
For instance, he can demand that the government turn over documents about other intelligence
operations that might prove his innocence, but that also shine a light on matters
the government would prefer to keep hidden. This is known as “gray mail,” and it works.
From 2005 to 2009, the FBI received almost 200 referrals from federal agencies about
alleged leaks. Investigators opened only 26 cases, identified 14 suspects, and prosecuted
none of them. Granted, this was before the Obama administration began an unprecedented
number of leaks prosecutions, but it gives you a sense of how cautious prosecutors
are about giving people in your situation a chance to expose the government.

5) Prepare a defense under the Espionage Act.

You’ve already hired your own lawyer—smart
move—who’s arguing that the secrecy agreements you signed don’t apply to the bin
Laden raid,
and in any case, that the law merely “invites” you to submit your work to pre-publication
review by the government. The government, no surprise, has a much stricter interpretation of your agreements, and the Pentagon’s spokesman has essentially accused you of withholding
your book in order to avoid official censorship.

But you should consider that rather than prosecute you for breaching signed agreements,
the government might go after you under the Espionage Act. Sound improbable? That’s
exactly what prosecutors have done in other cases where government employees allegedly
revealed classified information,
and those people weren’t writing a book. To defend yourself, you’ll have to argue
that nothing you wrote about was classified, and then you’ll have to turn the tables
on the administration and make the case that officials already revealed the most telling
details of the mission to kill bin Laden. (Side note: This will end up diminishing
the importance of your book. In
No Easy Day, you claim to “set the record straight” about the bin Laden operation, which implies
you’re telling the world things it doesn’t already know. I don’t think you are, and
you might have to admit that in order to save yourself.)

Also be aware that even if the prosecutors’ case under the Espionage Act was without
merit, they could still practically bankrupt you with legal fees. Indeed, they’ve
done it before. That
leads me to Tip 6.

6) Don’t spend the book advance.

You’ve said you intend to donate much of the proceeds of the book to organizations
that support the families of fallen SEALs. But first, you might want to set aside
some of it for legal fees. And second, don’t kid yourself: Absent a prosecution, the
government’s primary relief in your case will be to impound the proceeds of your book,
including the advance you’ve already been paid, future installments that you’re owed,
and any subsequent royalties and revenue from the sale of other rights, like the movie
or the TV show. (These dramatic properties are in demand in Hollywood, as you are
surely aware.)
Unlike with a public trial, there will be little, if any, blowback for the government
if it takes this money. People will defend your right to write a book about the SEALs.
They won’t defend your right to make millions off it if you broke a promise to stay

7) Protect your communications with your cowriter.

A leaks prosecutor need not just focus on you. He could go after your cowriter,
Kevin Maurer,
and compel him to turn over all e-mails, interview notes, recordings, or other documentation
about what you told him in the course of writing this book. Does he have a lawyer?
Has he destroyed his notes? You need to find out.

Of course, if your arrangement was like most cowriting gigs, you actually didn’t write
a word. You told your story to Maurer, and he wrote the manuscript, or most of it.
In this case, Maurer could argue that you were merely a source, and that reporters’
privilege means he doesn’t have to divulge any information to the government. That
would mean the details of your conversations were safe on his end. But the government
could then come after you as a source, and it’s a lot easier to subpoena someone in
that position.