If you’ve never heard of Matt Bissonette, his story is a cautionary tale worth reading.

A decorated former Navy Seal, Bissonette wrote a critically acclaimed book called “No Easy Day”. The story was a first-hand recounting of the Bin Laden raid that seemed destined for the bestseller list and perhaps even Hollywood. The only problem? It contained classified information.

As it turns out, Bisonette failed to obtain for his book what the law terms “pre-publication review.” Such reviews are conducted by a panel of officials from the agency where a security clearance holder holds or held their clearance. Although they can be lengthy – a disincentive to comply in the eyes of some clearance holders – there is no financial cost to the clearance holder, nor is there any requirement that the clearance holder divulge anything beyond the actual proposed text.

The process is required for all current or former security clearance holders who wish to publish material in any format that addresses their experience while working with a security clearance, their observations, or anything else tied to their official duties that could conceivably contain government secrets. Security clearance holders contractually agree to such pre-publication reviews in the standard paperwork signed both at the time of indoctrination into classified access and the time of any subsequent out-processing. The form is called SF-312; if you don’t remember what it contains, you can read a blank version here.

Bisonette recently sued his attorney, alleging that the attorney instructed him not to obtain pre-publication review because the attorney had a security clearance and could conduct the review himself. If true, that was clearly bad advice. Unfortunately for Bisonnette, any damages he may be able to recover from his attorney will likely pale in comparison to the book advance and royalties he was due to receive from his book – all of which he was required to forfeit to the U.S. government as a penalty. On the other hand, Bisonette is lucky: the government seems content to resolve this case through civil forfeiture instead of a criminal prosecution.

Most security clearance holders aren’t Navy Seals, and most certainly don’t have anything nearly as exciting as tracking down Bin Laden to write about. Nonetheless, security clearance holders of all stripes should take the underlying lesson here to heart: read the legal terms and conditions contained in your security clearance indoctrination and out-processing paperwork carefully. “Boilerplate” legalese can portend serious consequences.


This article was written for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding the specific facts and circumstances of your case.

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/.