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SEAL Team 6 Veterans Face Flak While Former SecDef Skates

In the military they call it, “Different spanks for different ranks”: weaker standards of accountability for high-ranking officers than for low-ranking personnel. And what about White House political appointees, the folks who actually run the Pentagon? Well, they may have even less to worry about.

This contrast appears to be playing out in real time as the Pentagon scrambles to confront the possible release of highly classified material by two members of SEAL Team Six, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden. One SEAL failed to get required clearance for a book he published two years ago. The other SEAL’s impending appearance on a Fox News TV special tomorrow night is raising concerns that he, too, may be about to release sensitive information. Both SEALs are facing public excoriation from fellow covert warriors and commanders, as well as possible legal consequences for their actions.

Then there’s former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who as CIA Director helped direct bin Laden’s elimination in May 2011. Since then, he has achieved near impunity despite his documented disclosure of Top Secret information concerning the Abbottabad raid, not to mention his reported threats to print Worthy Fights, his new memoir, without a complete CIA security review, and the allegation that the memoir underwent editing and printing before the CIA vetting process was complete.

Judicial Consequences?

On Veterans Day, Fox News will begin airing a much-publicized special featuring an “interview with the Navy SEAL who says he fired the shots that killed terrorist leader Usama Bin Laden,” according to the network’s press release.

Even though the broadcast has yet to air, the prospect that a member of the SEALs would step into the limelight with a detailed personal account of the raid has upset the Pentagon, and leaders of Navy Special Forces specifically.

“As a former military member, the person who is the focus of the Fox News program remains obligated to uphold any non-disclosure agreement he may have signed,” Navy Commander Amy Derrick Frost told the Project On Government Oversight. SEALS, whose names are rarely disclosed because of the secret nature of their work, are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. They are not permitted to reveal their preparations, plans, or other highly classified information, according to the Department of Defense.

SEAL commanders Rear Admiral Brian Losey and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci wrote a letter dated October 31, 2014, to their to Naval Special Warfare “Teammates,” threatening that they would not hesitate to seek “judicial consequences” for any members who violate the law by disclosing classified information as they seek publicity or financial reward.

Another SEAL in hot water over the issue is Matt Bissonnette. His lawyer recently revealed that he is being criminally investigated for possibly releasing classified information on the raid, either in No Easy Day, his 2012 book on the subject, or in subsequent lecture-circuit appearances to discuss the matter. The CBS program 60 Minutes recently reported that one area of concern involves the existence of the SEALs’ special night vision goggles mentioned in the book. At the time of publication, none other than Panetta, Secretary of Defense at the time, publicly criticized Bissonnette for having penned the memoir in the first place, and put other Special Forces operators on notice that they should not follow suit. As Panetta put it in a CBS interview: “How the hell can we run sensitive operations here that go after enemies if people are allowed to do that?”

Since then, Bissonnette has found himself caught up in a still-unresolved legal battle, with the Pentagon bringing suit to reclaim some of the millions of dollars Bissonnette earned from his best seller. In the course of that controversy, Bissonnette has expressed regret that he did not submit his book for a mandatory Pentagon security review. His lawyer told POGO that he hopes to resolve the case soon. As Bissonnette himself asked in a recent interview with NBC: “There’s how many former generals, how many former CIA directors, how many former secretaries of defense? How many of them all get out and write books?”

Leon Panetta’s Role

On a summer day not long after bin Laden’s 2011 killing, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta addressed a crowd at Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, offering a classified review of the mission and saluting those who tracked down and killed the al-Qaeda leader. Amid the crowd of cleared civilian and military personnel was a Hollywood screenwriter for the movie that would become Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty, a production with which Panetta and his team cooperated extensively.

(The same goggles mentioned in the book No Easy Day are also featured in Zero Dark Thirty, 60 Minutes reported.)

The Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted a subsequent probe of Panetta and other senior officials involved with the filmmakers. Among other things, the investigation concluded that Panetta had disclosed Top Secret national security information after the Hollywood screenwriter was ushered into the gathering to hear Panetta’s remarks.

Two years later, the OIG had still not released its report on the matter. In June 2013, POGO published a copy of an unreleased draft. Among other things, the document said a CIA public affairs officer tried to keep the filmmaker out of the gathering but Panetta’s chief of staff directed that he be allowed in. The report said the chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, disputed that account, telling the OIG he was not involved.

Days after POGO made public the unreleased draft, the OIG released its final and official account. Despite abundant documentation gathered by its own investigators, the official version omitted any mention of Panetta’s unauthorized disclosures. Panetta was never interviewed for the report, but sources close to him have said he had “no idea” that an uncleared person was present when he spoke about the bin Laden raid.

During a 2013 interview with POGO, Bash stated that he told the OIG that he was not involved in arranging the scriptwriter’s presence at the CIA event.

Months later, in response to a FOIA request from Judicial Watch, the CIA released a redacted transcript of Panetta’s remarks about the raid. The transcript was stamped “TOP SECRET.”

The CIA also released an email written by Jennifer Youngblood, identified on the email as deputy chief of the Agency’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA), stating that Director of Central Intelligence Panetta’s chief of staff directed that the Hollywood screenwriter be allowed to attend the event where Panetta spoke about the bin Laden mission. The email, dated April 20, 2012, says in part:

“The other invitee to the ceremony was Mark Boal, the screenwriter for the Sony Movie. OPA invited him at the direction of Jeremy Bash, DCIA’s Chief of Staff.”

Premature Publication?

Last month, The Washington Post reported that Panetta “clashed” with the CIA over the agency’s mandatory pre-publication review process in connection with Worthy Fights. The newspaper said Panetta had challenged determinations by CIA staff as to what he could include in the book, protested directly to current CIA director John Brennan, and threatened to proceed without clearance from the agency. The newspaper said that a review copy of the memoir it had received contained date stamps apparently indicating that the volume had undergone copy-editing before the CIA cleared the manuscript.

According to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project, the Post reported, Panetta allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA.

The Post further reported that “Panetta’s decision appears to have put him in violation of the secrecy agreement that all CIA employees are required to sign and came amid a showdown with agency reviewers that could have derailed the release of the book, people involved in the matter said.”

“The CIA’s dispute with its former director, and its apparent decision not to pursue the potential violation, could complicate the agency’s ability to negotiate with other would-be authors and avoid accusations of favoritism,” according to the Post.

Representatives of Panetta at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in California did not respond to requests for comment. Panetta is currently on a book tour. His memoir reportedly received an advance close to $3 million.