Sunday, January 12, 2014

No Easy Year

Welcome to Al Ashforth…

I'd met Al at many MWA-NY functions. Thought he was a cool cat, enigmatic, a still waters run deep kind of guy .But little did I know - til I read his highly acclaimed The Rendition, which recently was voted by the illustrious Military Writers Society of America as one of the year's best books in the Thriller/Mystery category!

Al has a distinguished academic, military and writing career. He advises writers: "Think about your topic before you sit down to write… our conscious minds seem to present and define problems for us, but our subconscious minds do the hard work."

For his bio of Thomas Henry Huxley, Al did much of his research at the Imperial College in London. Then St. Martin's Press published
Murder After the Fact. Both books are available through Amazon.

Recent publications also include "One Person's Clutter" in
Kwik Krimes, "Bad for Business" in Hardboiled Magazine, "Incident in Kabul" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and "His Times Square Princess" in Crime Square, a Vantage Point Anthology.

Other credits include a Doctorate, university level teaching, news reporting for two NY newspapers. He also trained NATO Officers for the German Military Academy, was an instructor at the 10th Group Special Forces Headquarters in Bad Tolz and, as a military contractor, served tours in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Al's thoughts on his recent book The Rendition: " Renditions... are becoming more significant politically... the most famous was the operation to take out Osama bin Laden. I don't think we have felt the last of the reverberations that will follow as a result of that rendition…"

I've taken the liberty of including a recent definition on the term here: "Rendition is the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less vigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners."

I believe you will find Al's comments below of great interest.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

It has not been an easy year for the author of No Easy Day.

According to a recent issue of the Army Times, Pentagon officials are still considering legal action against former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette for writing a book describing his part in the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Although Mr. Bissonnette’s book, No Easy Day, was published by Dutton over a year ago, on September 11, 2012, legal action continues to be threatened.

But hopefully, none will be undertaken.

I found the Army Times article mildly surprising because, as time goes on, it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that Mr. Bissonnette will go to jail, or even to trial. Since Mr. Bissonnette has gone through the difficult training required of all SEALs and participated in thirty deployments, his patriotism can hardly be questioned, and I doubt that a jury would convict him of knowingly revealing information harmful to the United States. He might then only face civil litigation for violating the confidentiality agreement he signed in 2007, which required him to let the Pentagon review anything he’d written prior to publication.

One reason he might not have wanted to submit his book to the Pentagon was the experience of Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer. Shortly before publication of Operation Dark Heart, Colonel Shaffer’s account of his work as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, the government bought up 9,500 copies of the book and destroyed them. Certainly Dutton, Mr. Bissonnette’s publisher, was happier publishing No Easy Day, rather than destroying it. The book is reported to have sold well over 500,000 copies.

Despite No Easy Day’s commercial success and the fact that Mr. Bissonnette has provided a truly valuable account of an important military action, this last year has probably not been an entirely pleasant time for him. It has to be more than mildly disturbing to know that, as the newspaper article states, a number of Pentagon officials continue to be “ticked off” and would like to see him deprived of his royalties and maybe even behind bars.

For his part Mr. Bissonnette contends that he abided by his agreement when his publisher vetted the book and found no information that would be harmful to the United States. The government contends that in No Easy Day, which he published under the pen name Mark Owen, Mr. Bissonnette may have leaked classified information. It also maintains that only the government can determine what is or is not harmful to our country. But since information does not arrive with the label “classified,” it is not easy for anyone—a writer, a publisher, or even the government—to know exactly what should be classified and what should not be. And because “classification” is a largely arbitrary process, many people feel the government inclines to overuse the “classified” label.

Whatever some Pentagon officials may think, the mood of our country now is to give Mr. Bissonnette the benefit of the doubt. Having read the book, I have to agree with Mr. Bissonnette and his publisher. I can’t see that any of the information contained in the book has been harmful to the United States. And since so many other people have been talking freely about the raid, it would seem logical, and even desirable, to hear about the raid from someone who actually took part in it.

Among the people who have talked openly about the bin Laden raid are members of the SEAL brass who have provided information about what happened to Hollywood, specifically to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who made the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Another is President Obama, who reported bin Laden’s death the day following the raid and who described the raid during the last election campaign as one of the significant accomplishments of his first term in office. Yet another information source was the White House itself, with many officials over an extended period leaking facts about the capture of Osama bin Laden to the press. Unfortunately, one of the leaks has led to the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Shakil Afridi for having helped determine the whereabouts of bin Laden. Dr. Afridi’s role in the bin Laden rendition should definitely have remained classified—with a capital “C”.

Yet another reason, and perhaps the most significant one, not to take action against Mr. Bissonnette is the widely held belief among members of the American public that the government reveals much too little regarding what’s happening in the War on Terror. Many Americans feel that, as citizens of a democracy, they are entitled to know much more of what’s going on overseas than they are being told.

To me, it seems incredible that despite these many mitigating circumstances there continue to be DOD officials who maintain that Mr. Bissonnette is “in material breach of his confidentiality agreement” and should be hauled into court.
Maybe Mr. Bissonnette should have done what authors of espionage thrillers do—fictionalize. In No Easy Day Mr. Bissonnette hardly deviates from describing his career as a SEAL, beginning with the intense training he received and then moving through the various deployments he was involved in. The final nine chapters deal with the raid on Abbottabad. He hardly ever mentions people apart from his fellow SEALs, but what he could have provided, along with the accounts of his training, is a detailed description of a master terrorist. The terrorist could be an individual whose career spans decades and who is suspected of being behind some of the bloodiest and most gruesome terror attacks perpetrated since 9/11. To make him seem menacing, he could be known by the name of a particularly ferocious animal—not a jackal, lion or tiger since they’re been used—but perhaps a wolverine or a puma.

Since novels are primarily about people and their relationships, Mr. Bissonnette could have introduced early on in the story a young woman who loves the hero but who feels his career is too dangerous for a man who wants to be a husband and father. When she asks him to make a choice between her and his SEAL career, he decides, reluctantly, to resign and get married.

However, just as he is about to announce his retirement he receives a summons from his team’s master chief to a top secret meeting in a secure conference room on a North Carolina military installation. At this meeting The Wolverine or Puma is described in terms that would fit Osama bin Laden, and the CIA reveals it has located the master terrorist living at a small city in Pakistan.

Since the hero knows this is the mission he’s been training for all his life, he changes his mind about resigning from the service. Something else Mr. Bissonnette could have imagined are tensions within the SEAL team’s ranks. He could have built suspense by describing other problems. At some point, for example, the SEALs could begin to fear the plans for the mission have leaked and the terrorist knows they’re coming. During the landing, besides the downdraft which caused the helicopter to crash, they could encounter other problems. Maybe the Pakistani Army could show up at the moment of their arrival, guns blazing. Maybe his hero could have been wounded and subsequently nursed back to health by an attractive nurse who replaces his original girlfriend in his affections.

Like most people, I like happy endings.

While large portions of such a book would have been fiction, most details of the story would have been accurate. For some readers separating the facts from the fiction could have been a challenging undertaking. If Mr. Bissonnette had written a fictional account of a rendition aimed at capturing a prominent and influential terrorist hiding in Pakistan, he would have been joining the legions of writers who write about espionage within a fictional framework—and he would probably not have to worry about DoD officials threatening to haul him into court.

Washington D.C. has more than its share of leakers, and certain details of the bin Laden raid which have been divulged should never have been divulged. This information was revealed, not by Mr. Bissonnette or members of SEAL Team 6, but by government and military officials for their own reasons. Although I can understand the Pentagon’s initial unhappiness with the book’s publication, I now find the continuing unhappiness with Mr. Bissonnette to be an overreaction. Mr. Bissonnette, who in writing No Easy Day made a genuine effort not to reveal any information that might be damaging to the United States, has provided the public with a faithful and historically valuable account of what happened during the fateful early morning hours of May 1, 2011, in Abbottabad.

© 2014 Albert Ashforth


  1. Thanks for stopping by CWC, Al. Maybe one of your colleagues will come forth with the plot you suggest... how about Al himself??? tjs

  2. Very interesting to know how these situations are perceived and handled. I especially liked your comments about "classification," and it's probable overuse.