For anyone who values both the First Amendment and the nation's right to defend itself, the publication of a former Navy SEAL's book on the raid the killed Osama bin Laden presents a conundrum: Where do you strike the balance between fundamental rights and compelling duty?
There are at least two answers, one clear, the other as dark as a mountain cave. Here's the easy one: Former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette shouldn't have written the book. Owning a right doesn't mean you always have to exercise it. Couples understand this concept well. Just because something is true doesn't mean that saying it will be wise or useful.
A right to do something presupposes a choice: You have the right to do it or not to, as you see fit. Another example, closer to home for those of us who work for newspapers: The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press offers newspapers tremendous freedom on what they choose to print, but not everything gets in. Editors constantly weigh concerns about appropriateness, reliability, accuracy, fairness, libel and other matters before printing sensitive information.
So here's the question about Bissonnette: How much consideration, if any, did he give to the matter of appropriateness before spilling the beans about a subject that is simultaneously riveting and sensitive? Did he evaluate the risks to national security and to his former colleagues, still carrying out dangerous missions? Did he ask for anyone's advice before submitting the work for publication? Or was this just a payday?
The Pentagon - not always trustworthy on this kind of matter - says the book, "No Easy Day," contains secrets that may provide enemies with dangerous insights into classified U.S. operations.
That was the case the military made when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the government was misleading the public about the Vietnam War. The Times published, despite government threats, and it was good that it did: Claims that the paper was betraying secrets were true only insofar as voters knew things the government preferred it didn't.
Bissonnette's book, while about a compelling subject, does not appear to provide details that radically undermine the public's understanding of events. Details are different from those provided by the Obama administration, but the question is whether a member of the armed forces - of the actual team that rid the world of bin Laden - should be so cavalier about his duties to his comrades, to the SEALs, the Navy, the Pentagon and the country.
Bissonnette may be within his constitutional rights to have written this book, though there are questions about the legal obligations he undertook as a member of the SEALs. But we have little doubt that he exercised questionable - and maybe even poor - judgment in choosing to exercise that right in the way he did.
Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor. Bissonnette's valor is beyond question. His discretion leaves something to be desired in a military man entrusted with the most sensitive mission of his generation.