In this episode I do a critical review of No Easy Day, the real-life story written by a former Navy SEAL who was on the Abbottabad raid. I look at the controversy around the book, which is still going on, and ask whether it is all either a smokescreen or a promotional technique. Then I analyze the content of No Easy Day, asking the big questions: (1) Was it really Bin Laden that they killed? (2) Does this book support the official lie about the Abbottabad raid? (3) Is this a piece of officially-sanctioned propaganda? The answers in each case might surprise you, as this is a more complex and fascinating book than many people give it credit for being.
This is of course the book by the Navy SEAL who was on the Abbottabad raid that supposedly killed Bin Laden. To my knowledge it is the only book about that event written by someone who was actually there.
I’ve decided to do a review of No Easy Day for several reasons – I have been thinking I needed to do a podcast on this book for a while, ever since I first read it, and the Seymour Hersh article and the fallout from that provoked me to do it this week. Also, as someone who specialises in books and films about real life black operations, especially those produced by people who work for, or used to work for, military and intelligence agencies, this is something I am uniquely equipped to review and discuss. And, as I hope you’ll see by the end of this episode, it is a quite fascinating piece of literature.
First I’m going to look at the story and the controversy around the book, then I’ll quickly summarise it, then I’ll go through and pick out a few things that I think are important, amusing or just worthy of highlighting.
The book itself was published in September 2012, so about 16 months after the raid itself. It was written by Kevin Maurer, an author who specialises in the US military and was previously an embedded journalist in Iraq, and Mark Owen, the pen name of Matt Bissonnette, a member of SEAL Team 6. This caused quite a lot of controversy because Owen and his publisher refused to submit the manuscript for DOD review before publication, as they were supposed to. Even before the book came out this argument started to play out in the media, which of course created buzz and hence this controversy functioned as advance promotion and publicity for the book.
Owen was also threatened by Al Qaeda, at least in the sense that someone posted death threats on the internet, and this also helped bring the book to more people’s attention. Of course, no attempt has been made on his life, despite the fact we now know his real name and enough information that finding him would not be particularly difficult. My guess is that all of this, all of this, was theatre designed to promote the book.
Then the book came out, and within a day the DOD declared that it contained classified information that could pose a threat to members of SEAL Team Six. There were a bunch of other minor controversies in the following months, for example in November, a couple of months after the book came out, seven Navy SEALs who had been recruited by Mark Owen were disciplined for revealing classified information to a computer games company.
Another two years down the road, in November 2014 Owen sued his own lawyer for $8 million dollars. Apparently, because his lawyer told him that he didn’t have to get the book cleared by the DOD, Owen had to forfeit several million dollars to the government, along with his security clearance and the movie rights to the book. So Owen is suing his lawyer for giving him bad advice. The flipside of this is that Owen is also publishing a new book, which is being reviewed and vetted by the DOD, and that he hasn’t been charged under the espionage act for revealing classified information. So he isn’t doing too badly.
Now, there is an element of Valerie Plame about all this – someone who leaves a covert agency under a cloud, runs into some light difficulties when it comes to telling their story, but all this ultimately just draws more attention to them and they land on their feet and do alright for themselves. So I wonder whether all of this controversy and legal battle is just a cover story, another distraction from the biggest question of all – did they actually kill Bin Laden?
Having read the book, there is nothing in there that I haven’t also read in a dozen other books by former special forces soldiers. There’s nothing of any great consequence in there, nothing you haven’t already seen in a dozen Hollywood movies. The notion that it contains critical classified information is a joke. But of course the idea that it does, the idea that this book is so authentic and real that the DOD forced the author to give up millions of dollars, just adds to its credibility. I’m sure by now you get what I’m saying to you, that I think this book is an officially sanctioned piece of propaganda and that all this controversy is just a smokescreen for that. The alternative is that this is another case of astounding government overreach, which I admit is also possible.
But let’s get into the book itself. In essence it tells the story of one man who grows up in Alaska, the outdoors type, bit handy with a rifle, so obviously he joins the Navy SEALs. Then there’s some by the numbers stuff about how hard it was to get into SEAL Team Six, how these guys are the best of the best, how there’s such camaraderie, blah blah. Eventually he ends up being a team leader on the Abbottabad assault, and then not long after that he decides to resign and write this book.
There are several elements to this story that I want to focus on, and rather than go through the book in the order that it is written I’d like to draw out a few key questions and themes.
We’ll start with the obvious one – was it Bin Laden? Obviously, I’m prejudiced, because I never bought into this story. In fact when a friend of mine phoned me up early one morning – I was still asleep – she phoned me up to tell me the news that they were saying they’d got Bin Laden, found him in a house in Pakistan, gone in, shot him, and then dumped the body in the sea, my first reaction was to laugh.
Nonetheless, in No Easy Day Mark Owen is quite clear that he 100% believes that they killed Bin Laden on that raid. The problem is, by his own admission there are all sorts of reasons to doubt this. For one thing, he and many of the other members of SEAL Team Six were on a sleeping pill called Ambien in the days and hours before the raid. He makes numerous references to it, and to being asleep in the helicopter on the way to Abbottabad. Quite a few of them, it seems, woke up with about 10 minutes to go.
The listed side effects of Ambien, as you might expect, include drowsiness, dizziness, clumsiness, abnormal sense of movement, confusion about identity, place and time, double vision, feeling of unreality, memory problems, problems concentrating and seeing, hearing or feelings things that aren’t there. Two points on this:
1) Why would the military allow their soldiers to regularly use these drugs when they are about to go on a mission where co-ordination, clear thinking and clarity of mental faculties are of utmost importance?
2) Owen’s description of the raid itself does include references to things not seeming real, and other phrases indicative of him experiencing the known side effects of this drug. So, assuming he was really there, is he remembering things accurately? Not an easy question to answer.
Now I’m not saying they just doped up a bunch of SEALS and sent them into Pakistan, got them to shoot a bunch of people and then just told the SEALS that it was Bin Laden. To fool someone would take a bit more than that – you would, for example, need them to shoot someone who at least looked like Bin Laden. And from Owen’s descriptions, they did indeed shoot someone on the third floor of the house, exactly as the CIA predicted, and that is the man they believe was Bin Laden.
Owen describes in detail taking numerous pictures of the body, especially the face, and how everyone was going to see these pictures so he was really careful, knowing they were really important. He also describes several sets of DNA samples being taken, though of course we’ve never seen the pictures or the records of the DNA testing, so who knows what they really show.
However, he does consistently make references to not being sure that it was Bin Laden, how the man they killed had a much darker beard and looked younger than they expected, i.e. not at all like the old man we see in the video they supposedly found in the house in Abbottobad. The one where an old man is sat watching TV, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with. No, the man they killed had a black beard, though they explained that away by finding some Just for Men in the bathroom. And no, I’m not kidding, that is literally how Owen tries to explain that.
But let’s stop for a moment. This man, whoever he was, was living in a walled house that he rarely left, and when he left he just went for walks in the yard, he never even went outside the walls of the property to go down the street for a pint of milk or pack of cigarettes. Yet he was so concerned about his appearance that he died his beard black to make himself look younger? This makes no sense at all.
Even when they get the body out of Pakistan and back to a US air base in Afghanistan, Owen again makes reference to this. According to the book, William McRaven, the head of JSOC, was waiting for them and it was Owen himself who dragged the body bag off the truck, unzipped it and showed the body to McRaven. Once again, Owen can’t help himself but explain that the guy didn’t look like they expected Bin Laden to look, and that McRaven was initially not convinced that they’d got their man.
So the second big question – does this book reinforce the official lie about what happened?
In broad terms, yes it does. Despite the problems I’ve just outlined, the book concludes that they got Bin Laden, they were heroes, they were the bestest and most wonderful Americans and we should all worship them. Some details it gets wrong – of course there was no using of a wife as a human shield, but that was quickly dropped from the official lie anyway. The radio communications were being broadcast back to Washington DC, but there was no video. But of course, the idea that there was video was quickly dropped from the official lie.
The exact circumstances of the killing of the man on the third floor of the house also don’t quite jive, if you compare this version to, for example, the version in the film Zero Dark Thirty. In the film, the SEALS get to the top of the stairs, spot a guy hiding behind a doorway, whisper ‘Osama’ a couple of times, he sticks his head out, the point man shoots him in the head.
According to the book this whole exchange happened on the second floor of the house, when they were killing the man they called Khalid, supposedly Bin Laden’s son. According to Owen, he was second up the stairs onto the third floor and the point man in front of him simply spotted the ‘Bin Laden’ as he got to the top of the stairs and shot him without any hesitation or name whispering or anything like that.
On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty recreates a number of events, including the 7/7 bombings in London, and does a piss poor job of getting even basic details right. So perhaps this is an example of lazy filmmaking, even in an outright propaganda film, or maybe these little contradictions and confusions are deliberate. Sibel has suggested as much, and I’m certainly willing to entertain that, because from my investigations of black ops there are always things woven into the narrative that are irresolvable, solutionless mysteries designed to keep people guessing forevermore. This is one of the reasons I use the symbol of a labyrinth on the front of my 7/7 book.
So, the other big question: is this book a work of propaganda? Owen does refer to the power of books and films from the very opening passage where he mentions reading a book when he was a kid that was written by a former navy SEAL, and how ‘from page one, I knew I wanted to be a SEAL’. This is mirrored at the end of No Easy Day where he explicitly says he hopes his book inspires people to join the SEALs.
But beyond that, there is another dimension to this story that I’d like to briefly outline for you, which I think makes a good case that this book is an officially sanctioned piece of propaganda. Owen describes several missions that he participated in, including the rescue of Captain Phillips and an assault in Afghanistan that was part of the search for Bowe Bergdahl. Captain Phillips was that ship captain who was kidnapped by East African pirates. Bowe Bergdahl was a US soldier in Afghanistan who deserted and was subsequently kidnapped by the Haqqani network and held hostage for about five years. Pearse has done an excellent episode of Porkins Policy Radio all about Bowe Bergdahl which I can thoroughly recommend if you want to know more about this story.
So, all three stories – the rescue of Captain Phillips, the hunt for Bowe Bergdahl and the Abbottabad raid – all three have been great big war on terror news stories, events that help define the age and political paradigm that we live in. Two of them have already been turned into Hollywood movies and the third is due to be adapted for the big screen in the next year or so. Where this gets really interesting is that they were all turned into Hollywood films by the same people – this insidious little nest of propagandists at Sony Pictures.
This should come as no surprise, as the CEO of Sony Entertainment, Michael Lynton, is a former intelligence agent and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve written a series of articles all about Sony, and the evidence from this email hack from late last year along with other evidence that they are deeply involved with the DOD, the State Department and the CIA. But in essence the same people who are now managing the James Bond franchise with the help of British and American military and intelligence agencies, also made the facebook cover-up movie The Social Network, also made Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the Abbottabad raid, with help from the DOD and the CIA, and Captain Phillips with the help of the US Navy, are making one of the forthcoming Edward Snowden movies, and a story about Bowe Bergdahl, both of which will presumably involve assistance from the CIA.
So, the idea that all three of these stories would be adapted for cinema by the same little clique of propagandists, but that the book stringing these events together in a narrative designed to make you sign up and join the Navy SEALS isn’t propaganda, is ridiculous to me. In short, this book, No Easy Day, is part of a much wider propaganda campaign that encompasses a lot more than just the phoney Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad. It is one element in a large and complex process of mythologising the war on terror, but I think quite an important one, and so I hope you’ve got something out of this review today.