Following Fox News Channel’s interview with self-proclaimed UBL shooter Rob O’Neill, many in the audience, and even in the media, may be curious as to the details of the actual non-disclosure agreement O’Neill likely signed with regards to the operation to capture/kill Usama Bin Laden. To help clarify this point, allow me to explain how a “Special Access Program” works. Don’t worry, I am not going to reveal classified information, rather, only the outlines of how this “compartmented” information is handled.
In those circumstances in the military or intelligence when a particular activity, or stream of information, is considered to be highly sensitive, a military unit or government agency will take the extraordinary step of compartmenting the activity or intelligence stream in a Special Access Program. Think of a highly classified Naval operation to tap Russian undersea communication cables at the height of the Cold War; or, a reporting stream originating directly from Vladimir Putin’s secret mistress. In either of these cases, the agency/unit running the operation would want to protect the operation and resulting reporting, for fear of it being leaked if too many people were aware of its existence. Once it is leaked, it is of course compromised and likely over.
Therefore, anyone allowed into the program, in the sense of being a participant in the activity, or reader of the resulting intelligence stream, is made to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), and is logged in as “Read In” to the sensitive compartmented information (SCI) program. The person is provided whatever credentials are required to demonstrate his or her access, and is provided the ability to read reports, database traffic, etc. Whoever might be the custodian of the SAP — someone from a security department within the agency or unit — then tracks everyone who is read in, and their level of access. When you are done “needing to know” about the program, you are “read out” of it. You lose your access, and you sign away your right to ever talk about it, via the NDA. You retain your Top Secret/SCI clearance, of course, but simply lose access to a specific compartment.
In the case of Rob O’Neill, he and the other SEALs involved in the Neptune Spear operation were likely “read in” to the specific direct action operation, over and above any more general SAP that involved lethal authorities to target al-Qa’ida leadership. In other words — and this is speculation, as I was not directly involved in the operation that ultimately killed UBL — they probably were all read into the reporting stream that had provided UBL’s location, the specific SCI program, and probably all signed a non-disclosure agreement stipulating they would not publically speak of the operation. When the operation was completed, or at a minimum, when O’Neill left the service, he would have been read out of the SAP, thus ending his access to it.