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Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
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Presenter: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little September 4, 2012
DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon
on publication of the book "No Easy Day" by a former SEAL
Q: George, on the separate issue, on the SEAL book, has the department made a decision yet on whether to take any legal action regarding this and on whether or not there is classified material in the book, and if there -- if, indeed, you've determined there is, can you tell us what it is and what action may or may not be taken at this point?
MR. LITTLE: Thank you very much, Lita, for that question. We continue to review our options when it comes to legal accountability for what in our estimation is a material breach of nondisclosure agreements that were signed by the author of this book.
With respect to the information that's contained in the book, people inside the department have read it. And we do have concerns about some of the sensitive information that we believe is contained in it. I'm not going to get out ahead of what the process going forward might be and what options we might decide to pursue, but this is a very serious concern that we have.
When it comes to sensitive special operations missions, such as the operation that took down Osama bin Laden, it is important that those who are involved in such operations take care to protect sensitive and classified information. And if I had been part of the raid team on the ground and I had decided to write a book about it, it wouldn't have been a tough decision for me to submit the book for pre-publication review. That is common sense. It's a no-brainer. And it did not happen.
Q: Will you -- just as a follow-up -- you made a distinction between sensitive and classified. So is the determination that it is sensitive information there and not classified? And also, is there any determination on whether the book will be sold on -- on bases (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: There's been no directive from this department to withhold sale of the book from military exchanges. This book is being made widely available in bookstores and online. It is not our typical practice to get into the business of deciding what and what does not go on bookshelves in military exchanges. But that doesn't mean in any way, shape or form that we don't have serious concerns about the fact that this process of pre-publication review was not followed.
This is a solemn obligation. And the author in this case elected not to abide by his legal obligations. And that's disheartening and, frankly, is something that we're taking a very close look at.
Q: So there is classified information in the book, the department believes?
MR. LITTLE: We believe there's sensitive information that would have raised concerns had this book gone through pre-publication review. There's no doubt about it.
Q: I have a follow-up. If you don't --
MR. LITTLE: Go ahead, Dan.
Q: You're indicating that you're not -- you're not going to prevent the book from being sold on military bases, but at -- it looks like no legal action will be taken at this point and -- and this person (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: We are still looking at all options, Dan. I'm not saying that legal avenues are not available. Legal avenues are available to us. I'm simply not going to get into what we may or may not decide.
Q: George, not surprisingly, on Friday, the former SEAL's lawyer sent a letter back to the Pentagon saying that his client was not obligated or required to submit the material for pre-publication review, but is simply invited to do so. And is it true that this nondisclosure agreement would require him to submit for pre-publication review if he, the author, thought there was classified material in it?
MR. LITTLE: Our reading, as you might expect, is very different. We strongly believe that there was a requirement for pre-publication review in this instance. It wasn't followed. And the author is in material breach of his secrecy agreements with the United States government.
Q: Can you release a copy of that nondisclosure agreement and redact anything that would identify the former Navy SEAL?
MR. LITTLE: We did not release the nondisclosure agreements due to privacy concerns. And the fact that the name was on the NDAs, I'll see if there's a possibility for redaction, but we don't have any plans to release the NDAs at this time.
Q: Well, it -- it might be helpful to back up the Pentagon's claim that he was required to do it.
MR. LITTLE: Well, this is for us pretty open and shut. This is a solemn obligation -- I've signed many secrecy agreements over the course of my career, working inside the intelligence community and in the Department of Defense, and it to me is quite incredible that someone invested with preserving our nation's secrets, particularly in very sensitive missions, didn't think to have this reviewed.
Q: George, can you tell me the difference between sensitive information and classified information?
MR. LITTLE: Yeah, I mean, we can dance around definitions all we want, Elisabeth, but --
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: I agree. We are -- we are very concerned that -- that classified information may be contained in this book.
Q: Wait a minute. So wait a minute. You haven't found any yet? You're saying you found sensitive information, but not classified.
MR. LITTLE: We have -- we have -- we have very serious concerns that classified information is likely contained in this book.
Q: Have you made a determination yet, though, about whether -- has anyone determined that there is, in fact, classified information in there?
MR. LITTLE: We are, of course, continuing to review the book, but at this stage, let me put it this way. We do think that -- that sensitive and classified information is probably contained in the book.
Q: So sensitive -- you are definite that you found sensitive information and your "probably" phrase applies to classified? Or are you definite or probable on both? Which is it?
MR. LITTLE: I think that there is a very strong sense that -- that this book contains sensitive and classified information.
Q: But that is not a legal determination yet by the department. That's just your sense of it?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into the legal issues at play here. I'm not an attorney, and as I think I said on Friday, it's probably a tribute to the legal profession that I'm not a lawyer. But I do think that --
Q: (off mic) by saying that there was sensitive information in the book.
MR. LITTLE: Yes, absolutely. And there -- there --
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: We believe that -- that sensitive and classified information is contained in the book. I don't think I could be any clearer than that.
Q: (off mic)
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Okay, all right. Well, let's -- let's cut through it.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: All right. Let's cut through it.
Q: Say again?
MR. LITTLE: Let's -- let's cut through it. Sensitive and classified information is contained in the book. Now, look.
Q: It is?
MR. LITTLE: Is. Is. Is contained.
Q: (off mic)
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: I'll -- let me put a definitive mark on it, okay, so that I can be as clear as possible. And this is -- when you have special operations units that perform these missions, there are tactics, techniques, and procedures, not to mention human life, that are in play. And it is the height of irresponsibility not to have this kind of material checked for the possible disclosure of classified information. And we have very serious concerns after having reviewed the book.
Q: George, to that point, do you feel, as many have said -- and you're sort of suggesting here -- that the code of silence among special operators is slowly eroding. We've got this e-book coming out just after this. Is there more that needs to be done, rather than having people sign an NDA? Is there more that needs to be done to assure that they won't be going out and selling their stories after -- after all is said and done?
MR. LITTLE: Well, this doesn't happen all that often, for starters. Admiral McRaven, the commander of SOCOM, issued a message to his workforce recently. It was eloquent and to the point and addressed the importance of protecting our special operations culture.
We're prepared to look at ways of shoring up our belief that these kinds of books should receive pre-publication review. There's no doubt about it. And remember here, the sole yardstick is classification. This is a former service member who wrote a book. This is about merely trying to protect classified information. It's not about trying to prevent the telling of a story. That's the sole yardstick, is classification.
Q: But, George, you just said that you're ready to enter -- you're ready to look at the possibility you have to shore up your belief that classified -- that books need review. So you're now opening the door to the fact it's not so crystal-clear.
MR. LITTLE: It is -- it is -- it is crystal-clear. But if we need to, you know, re-emphasize this, we might. But in this case, as I said, it's a no-brainer. This is common sense. If you are a special operator, if you're an intelligence officer inside the Department of Defense or inside the intelligence community, you decide to write a book involving intelligence equities or special operations equities, you know you're involved in a classified mission, it is -- it is plain, it is simple. And -- and pre-publication review of this kind of book is not -- it's -- it's -- as I said before, the -- the height of irresponsibility not to go through the process, which is not that onerous.
Q: Does the disclosure of sensitive information require pre-publication review or just classified?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into the semantics here. The sole -- the sole yardstick is classified information. And that's -- sensitive information, you know, we can go into definitional disputes here, but, you know, the --
Q: But classified -- so you're -- I just want to make sure I hear this right. You're now saying there is classified information in the book?
MR. LITTLE: I think I've said at least three times now that we believe --
Q: (off mic) now you're saying is.
MR. LITTLE: Okay, all right.
Q: (off mic) difference.
MR. LITTLE: Okay. All right. Let me -- let me be clear. I'm -- I'm -- not to get into the semantics of the word "is," that's --
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: The -- the -- the answer is that we believe that there is classified information in this book.
Q: If the department believes there was classified information in the book, why did they not stop the publication of it as they have with other books, like Tony Shaffer's book?
MR. LITTLE: There are tendencies I think sometimes to think that there's a cookie-cutter approach to these matters. Each case has to be viewed on its own and on its own merits. And, oh, by the way, we didn't have much time in this case.
And, you know, pre-release copies of the book were already being circulated around. It's my assumption -- I guess I can't say for sure, but it's my assumption that some of the books were shipped a while back. So the practical effect of requesting that the publisher withhold release of the book just wasn't an available option.
Q: And do you have any information about why he left the service in April of this year? Were there any -- were there -- are there any indications that he may have been forced out for some reason, some breach that had occurred prior to this?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into it, and I don't know, to be honest.
Q: Has Panetta read the book?
MR. LITTLE: He's certainly been briefed on its contents, yeah.
Q: His reaction?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary is very concerned that the process wasn't followed here. The people who conducted this raid -- and, of course, he was at the heart of the -- of the mission, at least in guiding it, they performed heroic acts. They did this country and others a great service by taking Osama bin Laden off the streets.
The secretary is also of the belief that those who are entrusted with national security secrets need to live up to their obligations. It's not a high bar to cross, quite frankly. And unfortunately, that didn't happen in this case, and he's deeply disappointed that it didn't happen in this matter.
Q: George, just to follow up on that, Pentagon and White House officials had already talked so extensively about the details of this mission, how the SEALs flew into Pakistan, what their original plan was to drop each team, how the plane crashed, and then the backup plan, where the SEALs were dropped, how they deployed into the building and where they shot their different targets, I mean, it got to the point where Secretary Gates basically told everyone to shut up and stop talking about the mission. Have you compromised any sort of legal standing you have to bring against this author by how much the U.S. government has already talked about this mission?
MR. LITTLE: There are senior U.S. officials who are authorized to speak on these matters. And there are those who are not necessarily authorized to speak on these matters, but have other obligations, such as when they write a book to go through pre-publication review. And sometimes even those officials who are authorized at the time to speak on a particular subject, such as the bin Laden operation, if they were to write a book later on, would have to go through pre-publication review. I, for one, fall into that category. So let's not -- let's not conflate the issue here, Chris.
Q: (off mic) publicly saying something and writing it in a book. I mean, when Secretary Gates voiced his concerns, he wasn't talking about a book. He was talking about people describing very specific details of this operation.
MR. LITTLE: Well, this administration provided information -- unclassified information on the bin Laden operation in the days after the raid. There's no doubt about that. There was -- as I think you all will recall -- an insatiable appetite for information on the bin Laden operation. After all, this is one of the most profound military and intelligence successes in our history.
We were all deeply concerned, not just in this building, but elsewhere in the administration, about the disclosure of highly classified information that made its way out the door. I don't know precisely who did it, but it shouldn't have happened. And many of us tried to keep some of those sensitive details, particularly those involving sources and methods, from making their way to press reports.
So there was a concerted effort inside this -- inside this administration to protect classified information surrounding the bin Laden raid, while at the same time trying to address the understandable appetite on the part of the press corps and the American people for information on the demise of the world's number-one terrorist.
Q: George, your problem -- your objection to this so far seems to be that he didn't follow the rules. Is there anything you can say about actual damage that has occurred from this breach? Or is it just that he didn't follow the rules?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into what the damage assessments are. It may, frankly, be too early to tell. The book hasn't been widely distributed yet, but we'll see. I don't know.
Q: I'm still unclear -- back to Mick's question -- about whether the obligation that anyone is under here who writes a book and had access to classified information is under. Is -- is the -- is it sort of a self-identification that, gee, this book strays into classified information, so therefore I have to submit it under the terms of my nondisclosure agreement? Or is it -- does the agreement specify that any time you are writing about operations that you were formerly involved in that were classified, you have to submit it for pre-publication review?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have the precise or specific language of the NDA in front of me, David. That being said, anything that falls into the category of classified information that you may have been privy to, anything -- in my case, related to intelligence or the military, if I were to go out and write a book -- I don't have any plans to right now -- I would have to get it screened for pre-publication review.
Q: So even if you felt yourself --
MR. LITTLE: Anything that --
Q: Even if you felt yourself, having -- hypothetically -- that you didn't stray into classified information, you would still legally have to submit it?
MR. LITTLE: Under the terms of secrecy agreements that we sign with the U.S. government, this is a determination that doesn't fall on the individual. The individual simply has to say, a-ha, this may be sensitive, there may be classified information in play here, it relates to the military or may have intelligence equities, I need to submit this for pre-publication review. This happens on a regular basis by U.S. officials across the military and intelligence communities, and as I said, this is -- this is a no-brainer.
Q: And just one more quickly. You just said that there were senior officials after the bin Laden raid who did speak about -- about the raid and disclosed some information. You described -- you said that there was unclassified information released.
MR. LITTLE: Yeah.
Q: Was there a declassification process about details of the raid in the days after it so that senior officials could -- could speak about it?
MR. LITTLE: For press briefings that were conducted on the night of and -- and in the days following the raid, there were careful scrubs of the information. And when the information needed to be updated, we were clear about that. So --
Q: But I'm talking about whether -- I mean, there -- senior officials are allowed and authorized to declassify information for public disclosure. Did that happen after the -- in the days after -- or in hours after the bin Laden raid, do you know?
MR. LITTLE: Well, I can't speak for every part of our government. I wasn't part of every conversation. But I can tell -- I can give you my impression, having known about the raid in advance, having been present during the raid, and having participated in some of the press engagements following the raid, that there was a very strong effort made on the part of administration officials to protect classified information surrounding the raid.
And regrettably -- I don't where it came from -- but there were disclosures that we believe were very problematic in the days and weeks following the raid. And there were attempts to prevent the release of that information. In some cases, we were successful. In some cases, we weren't.
Q: George, you may have addressed this at the beginning, can I just double-check? The author of this book clearly is in breach -- if you say so -- is in breach of a process because he didn't actually hand over the book pre-publication. Is he definitely -- in the view of the Pentagon lawyers -- is he definitely in breach, at least potentially, of revealing official secrets? Does that automatically put him up to some other category of criminal prosecution?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on the legal aspects of this matter that may or may not be in play. What we can say very definitively is that he was in material breach of his NDAs.
Q: Who's the final decider, if you will, about whether or not to pursue legal action against the Navy SEAL?
MR. LITTLE: Ultimately, legal matters such as these -- not speaking to this particular case, because I don't want to preordain what the legal outcome might be, but ultimately it will be handled by the Department of Justice.
Q: So we should really be directing our questions over there at this point?
MR. LITTLE: Usually, these matters involve consultations, but ultimately the legal tip of the spear is the Department of Justice.
Q: (off mic) Department of Justice?
MR. LITTLE: I'm -- the Department of Justice is aware of our very serious concerns about the book, but I'm not going to get into the specifics of referrals.
Q: You know, the department's come under a lot of public scrutiny not just in this case, but in the past for helping Hollywood, helping the entertainment industry make movies about SEALs, make movies about special operations, you know, all kinds of thriller movie -- movies out there, and there's a number of them very well known to be in the works. Do you have any sense that Secretary Panetta wants to put the brakes or have a second look at this department or the government's level of cooperation with Hollywood because of these kinds of issues? Or do you see that continuing unabated at the moment? What's your sense of it?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary wants our engagements with the Hollywood industry to be -- follow appropriate policies and procedures. But as I understand it, he hasn't expressed -- well, he hasn't expressed any concerns to me about our engagement with -- with the entertainment industry and Hollywood and elsewhere, authors, and so forth.
We believe that it's a very important mission of ours to engage those who are putting together projects, whether they're in Hollywood or elsewhere. That's been part of our mission set for a very long time. Our goal is, of course, to help shape public understanding about our mission inside DOD and about the men and women who perform that mission and to provide facts so that these projects can be as realistic as possible.
Now, asterisk, do we understand that there's some artistic license taken sometimes in Hollywood? Yes. But we will continue to engage the entertainment industry. We will do it following our department's procedures and policies. And -- because it is the right thing to do.
Q: Do you have concerns about this book being made into a movie?
MR. LITTLE: I think that's probably the epitome of the hypothetical question.
Source: Department of Defense