Dead or Alive

AFP/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden in a video reported to have been filmed at the al-Qaeda training camp al-Farouq, Afghanistan

The essential facts of Osama bin Laden’s demise—that he was shot dead by US Navy SEALs in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during the early hours of May 2, 2011, local time—have been reliably established and stand beyond reasonable doubt. For many Americans and victims of al-Qaeda’s violence worldwide, they are the only facts that will ever matter. Bin Laden planned and funded terrorism operations that killed many hundreds of civilians not only in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, but also in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Given his record, it is uncomfortable to suggest that there might be more to the subject of bin Laden’s killing than a straightforward story of justice delivered. And yet from the first hours after the Abbottabad raid, American government officials have made false, confusing, and incomplete public statements about what, exactly, happened at Abbottabad. They have also dissembled about how Operation Neptune Spear, as the raid was named, planned for the possibility that bin Laden might be taken alive and put on trial.

Mark Owen, a pseudonym used by a recently retired SEAL named Matt Bissonnette, was a team leader on the Abbottabad raid. In No Easy Day, he writes that he hopes “to set the record straight about one of the most important missions in US military history.” His book belongs to an expanding genre of memoirs by Special Forces veterans and retired Central Intelligence Agency operatives. The genre’s growth may seem incongruous with the imperative of secrecy in intelligence activity and in the work of elite, clandestine military units like the SEALs. Yet the recent memoir boom seems to have been encouraged by military and intelligence leaders. This is presumably because, besides adding to the historical record, such books enhance the global brands of the CIA and the Special Forces, and so they help in the recruiting and retention of spies and operatives, while glamorizing the agencies in ways that make it difficult for members of Congress to cut their budgets.

Typically, the authors of such memoirs submit their manuscripts before publication for official review, to scrub the works of classified information. Bissonnette declined to do so; he writes that he eliminated all secret information from his book on his own. The Pentagon has declared that Bissonnette is in breach of his legal obligations, but so far the government has taken no action against him. No Easy Day is in any event respectful about the Obama administration and friendly to the SEALs, promoting their accomplishments enthusiastically. It also offers many new and apparently reliable eyewitness details about bin Laden’s last minutes. It would be too much, however, to say that Bissonnette has set the record straight.

For one thing, the story…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.