America just got a good, long look at one of the men who says he shot Osama bin Laden. Heavily disguised by makeup artists and using the same pseudonym (Mark Owen) he used to write the just-released “No Easy Day,” the former member of the US Navy’s elite counterterrorism unit, SEAL Team 6, described the raid in detail for the full hour of “60 Minutes” Sunday night.
As such, the episode served as a useful benchmark for where America finds itself on the issue of how to balance the public’s right to know with national security in an era when the need-to-know-now expectations of the Facebook generation are colliding with lengthening wars.
Beside the thorny issue that the account contradicts early official versions of where Mr. bin Laden was shot, there is the question of how much important detail Owen (now identified as Matt Bissonnette) might have revealed by violating the longstanding code of silence for special operators. On the other hand, he has helped acquaint the American public with an increasingly isolated US military.
“To the extent that his book … and interview … provide the impetus for a deepened understanding of the practices, challenges, and sacrifices of our armed service members, his revelations may help to bridge the widening gap between the military and civilian populations,” says Mark Wilson, a professor in Villanova University’s ethics program.
Professor Wilson cites a recent Pew study showing that less than 1 percent of Americans have served in the military during the past decade.
“The upside of Mark Owen’s candor is the potential to awaken our sense of the human costs of our war on terrorism and to initiate the dialogue that is essential for civic virtue," he says. "A healthy democratic society requires a keen sense of both the common good and the collective challenges that we face, military and civilian alike, in our shared but distinct endeavors.”
But he and many others say there are also moral, political, social, and military hazards involved in publicizing the killing of bin Laden.
“There may be risks created for future military operations and concerns about how these revelations are viewed in the eyes of the international community,” says Wilson. “There is a temptation to glorify and sensationalize the mission of SEAL Team 6, and while it is appropriate to be grateful for and applaud the success of the mission, we do well, ethically speaking, to avoid celebratory triumphalism.”
There is much speculation about the motivation for this book, pegged to the anniversary of 9/11, Mr. Bissonnette says he intends to donate all proceeds to charity and told CBS, “I’m not trying to be special or a hero or anything. I’m just trying to tell the bigger story.”
He also sought to dispel any sense that he was politically motivated, saying the book had no partisan aims. Others agree that the story should not be seen through a political lens, even if it might help President Obama.
“I strongly support his right to give [his account], and the American people's right to know to what happened on that day – one of the most important in American history,” says Fordham communication professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “Freedom and democracy thrive on information not secrecy, and as long as books such as Owen's don't endanger any missions or American lives, there should be more of them."
"As for the political impact, Barack Obama deserves enormous credit for giving the green light for the raid – it was act of enormous political courage – and if this book brings greater appreciation for Obama as president, that's well deserved," he says.
Still, other analysts have called into question Bissonnette's willingness to break special operators' traditional silence.
“Owen says the raid owed just as much success to the 50-year-old helicopter pilot as to him, then why say, ‘I fired shots'?" asks Len Shyles, professor of communication at Villanova University. "This is a contradiction by his own logic. I don’t think he should be let off the hook for this. I think it depletes his credibility.”
Using a miniaturized, scale model of the bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, Bissonnette described in detail how both helicopters approached, where they attempted to land, and what ensued after that. He suggested that bin Laden was first shot by a team leader ascending the stairs. The Pentagon version stated that the special operators had entered bin Laden's room. Bissonnette explained that the helicopters flew 150 miles from outside the country, staying as low as possible to avoid Pakistani radar, since the US had not alerted Pakistan to their presence.
“It seems to me he was divulging details that are a risk to national security – 12 guys here, 12 guys there, flying under radar in helicopters – that might be quite useful to our enemies for similar events in the future,” says Professor Shyles.
Others say the account fits into the broader narrative of memoirs from the front – though their publication has been accelerated because of the greater expectation for news now. For example, Bissonnette's account comes a year after the raid, whereas Philip Caputo’s revealing book about his service in Vietnam, "A Rumor of War,” took a decade to appear in print.
“Things move quickly today, as news cycles have shortened," says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory in the sociology department of the University of Texas, Arlington.
“There is something healthy about embedded journalists, even participants themselves, coming forward with frontline accounts," he adds. "Such accounts, by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and even Walter Cronkite, ended the war in Vietnam. I don’t know what Owen’s political motives are, if any, but, on balance, secrecy thwarts democracy.”