Founded in 1962, the Navy SEALs have long presented an irresistible conflict of interest for the military. For tactical purposes, the Navy attempts to maintain the unit's secrecy – it rarely even acknowledges the existence of the covert SEAL Team Six – while simultaneously promoting the SEALs' mystique to boost recruitment numbers. In 2005, the SEALs adopted a 440-word code of secrecy stating: "I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions," a pledge that the Navy itself broke soon thereafter. Just over a year later, in an effort to meet an enlistment goal of increasing recruitment numbers by 15 percent, the Navy's in-house media arm began courting Hollywood producers. The resulting film, 2012's 'Act of Valor' – a work of fiction starring real SEALs who were tasked by the Navy to perform – made $80 million, was promoted in a Super Bowl ad, and its footage later used to train recruits. But just months later, ex-SEAL and Osama bin Laden–raid team member Matt Bissonnette, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen, published 'No Easy Day,' an unauthorized account of the famous mission that the Pentagon claims broke military nondisclosure agreements (Bissonnette disputes the charges). Although soldiers have long written accounts of unclassified battlefield experiences without reprisal, the Bissonnette book so embarrassed the Navy, it responded by tamping down its public-relations strategy. The Pentagon threatened legal action against Bissonnette but would soon realize the appetite for SEAL stories had gotten beyond its control. "Navy leadership created a situation for a perfect media storm, and the tipping point was the bin Laden raid," says former SEAL and 'The Red Circle' author Brandon Webb of the growing exposure. "It's like a pirate ship gone rogue."
A Timeline of the SEALs' Crumbling Code of Secrecy
Ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette publishes 'No Easy Day,' an unauthorized account of the bin Laden raid. The Pentagon threatens legal action, claiming he was "in material breach of nondisclosure agreements he signed with the U.S. government," and the author subsequently goes into hiding. "He's pissed off and knows where a lot of bodies are buried," Webb says of Bissonnette, noting the Navy hasn't filed charges against him. "I'm sure he's got some get-out-of-jail-free cards."
The Navy reprimands and fines seven SEALs – often a career-ending punishment – who acted as paid consultants on the 'Medal of Honor' video game. The SEALs discussed tactics in a YouTube video series, showed game developers how to build a bomb, and gave notes on details such as how to reload assault rifles. Matt Bissonnette was a game adviser.
'Zero Dark Thirty' premieres. Controversy ensues over whether Navy leadership cooperated with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Meanwhile, SEALs watch the film and laugh at its inaccuracies. "There was no 'one' CIA girl," Webb says. "And the last 40 minutes? Those guys were whispering Osama's name as they were creeping up the stairs with night-vision goggles. I was like, 'Really?' This is terrible. This is amateur hour."
The supposed bin Laden shooter anonymously details the raid in Esquire, claiming to have shot the Al Qaeda leader three times in the head. This account differs from Bissonnette's book. Subsequently, CNN publishes an article in which another SEAL states that the anonymous shooter is lying. "From what I can tell, he wasn't the guy," says Webb. "He put a couple rounds in a dead body. The point man, the one who put the initial two shots in bin Laden, isn't talking. He and the other guys get pissed when they see someone like that guy embellishing the story. Now you're seeing this high school drama unfold in the news."
The seventh consecutive SEAL memoir since the bin Laden raid tops bestseller lists, stoking expectations for upcoming projects like Tom Hanks' 'Captain Phillips' – due in October – an account of the container-ship Maersk Alabama rescue. "Now the SEAL leadership is trying to rein it back in," says Webb of the media exposure, "but they've already been participating with Hollywood, without setting guidelines for what is acceptable or not. It's gotten out of control, and it starts with the leadership."