This book cover image released by Dutton shows "No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden," by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer. (Dutton via the AP)
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NEW YORK CBS News is disguising the identity of a retired Navy SEAL who wrote a book about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden so it can protect "an American hero" even though other media outlets have said who he is.
CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager said Thursday he'd make the same decision to withhold the identity even if the network hadn't landed an exclusive interview with the author, who participated in the May 2011 raid in Pakistan. Scott Pelley's interview with the ex-SEAL will be on "60 Minutes" on Sept. 9 and was previewed on the "CBS Evening News" on Wednesday.
The book, titled "No Easy Day" and written by one of the men in the room when the al-Qaida leader was killed in the May 2011 raid, was written under the pseudonym of Mark Owen. Last week, Fox News Channel first reported Owens' real identity as Matt Bissonnette, and The Associated Press also identified Bissonnette after getting independent confirmation.
Even after the other organizations revealed Bissonnette's identity, Fager said he made sure that all parts of his news organization did not.
"This is an American hero," Fager said. "He risked his life to do this job. Isn't it our responsibility to protect him? To hear his story is one thing, but to reveal his name so he becomes a target? I'd like to think that news people are Americans first. I feel that way."
For the interview, CBS news disguised Bissonnette's voice. A makeup person also concealed the author's looks so effectively before the "60 Minutes" interview that Pelley, who had met him three times before, did not recognize the author upon entering the room, said Fager, who is also executive producer of "60 Minutes."
After identifying Bissonnette, Fox News Executive Vice President and Executive Editor John Moody said that "once you write a book, anonymously or not, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy."
The AP decided to use his name because it was already on the Internet and on the air, so the expectation of keeping his name out of the greater public was very low. The AP informed Special Operations Command that it was going to use the name, and no government agency tried to dissuade the news organization. The AP does withhold a name if someone makes a compelling case that its publication would endanger the individual.
Fager said he's not sure what the value of reporting Owens' real name is for the viewer.
"We're not in the business of chasing down people who work in these agencies, whether it's a Navy SEAL or the CIA, and revealing their names to the public," he said.
Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA, said it shouldn't be a surprise that the ex-SEAL's real name came out.
"It's almost to be expected in today's world when you write a book like he wrote that commands so much interest," said Rodriguez, who was responsible for helping to keep CIA employees' identities safe. Rodriguez ordered interrogation tapes of suspected al-Qaida members destroyed so the identities of the questioners could not be found out.
Rodriguez, author of "Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved Lives," said he sympathized with the author's concern about his safety.
"If I were advising some of these media organizations, I would have urged them to be very cautious about leaking the true name of someone who participated in a raid to kill bin Laden," he said.
Bob Steele, a media ethics expert and professor at DePauw University, said the media have to set the bar high before granting anonymity to a book author. In this case, it's even more important for people to know the author, because the book makes an assertion that the raid did not go down quite like the Obama administration had reported.
"If you leave a name out of a story, you diminish its factual accuracy and its authenticity," Steele said. "A major piece of the jigsaw puzzle is missing."
ABC News has not used the author's real name because "the publisher's position that he could be endangered if named made sense," said Jeffrey Schneider, news division spokesman. ABC doesn't plan to reassess the decision unless the author decides to reveal his identity, he said. NBC News has not used Bissonnette's name in any stories about the case.
CNN had not been using the author's real name because Pentagon officials had asked that it not be revealed, spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said. But on the air Thursday, CNN showed clips from the CBS story and used Bissonnette's name, saying it was being revealed "under the Pentagon's guidance."
"By this week, it was clear his real identity was not going to remain private, and we reported it," Leininger said.