Center for Strategic Communication

Adm. William H. McRaven speaks at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, August 2011. Photo: USSOCOM/Flickr

The leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command and architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is seriously unhappy about a forthcoming book by a member of the SEAL raiding team. And he wants other elite U.S. commandos to know they could be in for a world of legal trouble if they write their own tell-alls.

No Easy Day is the first first-person description of the Osama bin Laden raid, penned by a former SEAL Team Six member named Matt Bissonnette. It’s set for publication, naturally, on Sept. 11. And it took the Pentagon and the White House by surprise. Admiral William McRaven, the leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command, wants to make sure it doesn’t lead to a pattern of similar memoirs.

McRaven, the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, reminded fellow members of the special-operations community reminding them that they signed binding documents designed to keep them from discussing their highly secretive work.

“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 in an open letter to current and former special-operations troops, as reported by the Associated Press and the Daily Beast. “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.”

Legal experts say McRaven is correct. “If they release classified information, yes,” they can be prosecuted, says Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who frequently represents CIA and military clients in disputes with the government. “In fact, if they’re still on active duty, there are other charges that can likely be brought associated with violating a secrecy [or] non-disclosure agreement. Civil remedies also.”

On the other hand, bringing charges against one of the SEALs who helped kill bin Laden is a dicey political proposition, to say the least. As a civilian, Bissonnette would be prosecuted by the Justice Department, which may not relish the optics of pursuing a man whom many would surely consider a national hero. (According to the book’s publisher, Bissonnette was “one of the first men through the door on the third floor of the terrorist leader’s hideout and was present at his death.”) Yet McRaven’s warning isn’t just directed at the author of No Easy Day, but at potential spec-ops memoirists, too.

Still, some in the special operations community are shaking their heads at Bissonnette, even before they’ve read the book. Fox News reports that an unnamed Navy SEAL said, “How do we tell our guys to stay quiet when this guy won’t?” After all, the book comes on the heels of several recent national-security leaks — as well as a campaign by some former special operations troops to pin the blame for them on President Obama. So far, the group has yet to criticize No Easy Day.