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Ex-Navy SEAL faces legal jeopardy for writing about bin Laden raid

A senior military official tells NBC News the special operations community feels betrayed by the former SEAL who published a book about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

What legal consequences could a former U.S. Navy SEAL face for writing a book about the still-classified 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden?  

Legal experts say the author could face trouble on two fronts -- a civil lawsuit for not seeking a military review before the book was published and possible criminal prosecution for revealing classified information.

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But a former Justice Department national security lawyer, Pat Rowan, said the government might be reluctant to prosecute a man who helped kill America's No. 1 terrorist enemy, unless the book reveals highly valuable and sensitive intelligence secrets.

 "What's more, if the government did decide to prosecute, the author's lawyer would be entitled to dig into the information that was disclosed by the White House and other officials, in both sanctioned and unsanctioned leaks," Rowan said.

Rowan was referring to the fact that President Barack Obama and other administration officials have been accused by Republicans of leaking details of the bin Laden raid for political gain. 

Dutton, a subsidiary of Penguin Group USA, announced on Wednesday that the book, titled "No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden," would go on sale on Sept. 11. The author, who will be identified only by a pseudonym, “was one of the first men through the door on the third floor of the terrorist leader’s hideout and was present at his death,” it said in a statement.

A similar case arose in the 1970s, when a former CIA officer named Frank Snepp published a book about his activities in Vietnam.

NBC's Brian Williams spoke with President Barack Obama about how it felt to look at the image of Osama bin Laden's dead body, and what it was like to place a call to George W. Bush after the terrorist was killed. He also speaks with Michael Leiter, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who was in the Situation Room with the President and the national security team during the bin Laden raid. Although al-Qaida still exists, Leiter says there's no doubt the U.S. is much safer.

The U.S. government sued on the grounds that he did not seek pre-publication review -- as he was obligated to do under an agreement he signed as a condition of employment -- and lower courts agreed to a demand that all the profits from the book be turned over to the government. By a vote of 6-3, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, even though the government never claimed the book revealed classified information.

"When a former agent relies on his own judgment about what information is detrimental, he may reveal information that the CIA -- with its broader understanding of what may expose classified information and confidential sources -- could have identified as harmful," the court said.

The participants pictured in the famous photo of the White House Situation Room taken during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound speak with NBC's Brian Williams.

These days, said former Homeland Security official Stewart Baker, most government non-disclosure agreements say that if pre-publication review isn't sought, the profits must be forfeited. Legal experts doubt, however, that the government could stop publication of the book.

The author could also be charged with violating federal laws that make it a crime for government employees to reveal classified information.  Anyone given a security clearance is bound for life by its non-disclosure terms, so the fact that the former SEAL is no longer in the military would not free him from the obligation to keep government secrets to himself.

A DOJ official who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity on Thursday said he knew of no legal action against the former SEAL. That process would most likely start with a request from the Defense Department and, so far as the official knew, none had been made. DOD would have to verify that the book revealed government secrets before making such a request, the official said.