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President Donald Trump's controversial pardons of former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and the so-called "Blackwater Four" were in line with the clemency he has previously afforded to combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military law experts both for and against his actions.
The pardons for Hunter, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the four contractors for the former Blackwater Worldwide security firm were among a total of 15 pardons and five commutations announced by the White House on Tuesday night.
Citing White House sources, The Washington Post and other news outlets said the pardons Tuesday were the first in a series expected to be issued by Trump before he leaves office.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. David Gurfein, chief executive officer of the United American Patriots advocacy group, told Military.com, "We are very confident we will see dismissals of the findings and sentences [in at least eight other cases of troops convicted or charged of crimes in war zones]."
Among those convicted of war crimes by military tribunals who have filed petitions for clemency with the Justice Department is former Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty at a general court-martial in 2013 to the murders of three Afghan men, four women and nine children, including a 2-year-old.
Related Op-Ed: I Prosecuted Robert Bales. He Should Never Receive a Pardon
In the case of the 44-year-old Hunter, who was to begin an 11-month jail term next month for stealing campaign funds, the White House statement noted that a full pardon was being granted "at the request of many members of Congress."
"Mr. Hunter has dedicated much of his adult life to public service," the statement said. "Prior to his time in Congress, Mr. Hunter was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Inspired to enlist after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Hunter saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan."
A 48-page federal indictment filed in 2018 against Hunter listed 60 counts of misuse of campaign funds, including money to finance extramarital affairs and bogus claims of donations to veterans causes.
In an August 2018 Fox News interview, Hunter said, "I didn't do it" and blamed his wife, Margaret, for mishandling the funds.
"I'm saying that when I went to Iraq in 2003, the first time, I gave her power of attorney, and she handled my finances throughout my entire military career. And that continued on when I got into Congress," Hunter said. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count in the indictment.
Margaret Hunter filed for divorce earlier this month after 22 years of marriage, citing "irreconcilable differences."
On Nov. 25, Trump pardoned retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who had pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian diplomat. The president has previously shown that he gives close consideration to clemency pleas in war crimes cases.
In November 2019, Trump issued a "full and unconditional" pardon to former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted in the killings of two Afghans and had served six years of a 19-year sentence.
At the same time, Trump also pardoned Army Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who was charged with killing a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan, and reversed the demotion of Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who had been acquitted of killing a prisoner in Iraq.
Nisour Square Massacre
The so-called "Blackwater Four" -- Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard -- were originally the "Blackwater Five."
Jeremy P. Ridgeway, a California Army National Guard veteran of Iraq, pleaded guilty in 2008 and agreed to testify against the others. He was sentenced to one year in prison.
At his sentencing, Ridgeway apologized to "all who grieved at my hands and those of Blackwater personnel," and also to the Iraqi people and to the United States -- "the land that I love."
"I was charged with the protection of lives," Ridgeway said. "I am sorry."
On Sept. 16, 2007, in Baghdad, the Blackwater guards were escorting a U.S. Embassy convoy through the city's Nisour Square. Prosecutors later charged that the guards fired unprovoked into a crowd of civilians, killing at least 14 and wounding 20.
The guards claimed they were ambushed and fired back in self-defense.
The killings led to congressional hearings on American use of armed contractors employed by such firms as Blackwater, which was founded by Erik Prince, a wealthy Trump supporter and brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The White House statement cited support for full pardons by the public and from Fox News personality Pete Hegseth; Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas; and nine other House members.
Gohmert heads the Justice for Warriors Caucus, which lobbies on behalf of service members accused of crimes in combat zones
"Mr. Slatten was inspired to serve his country after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division," the statement said. "Mr. Slough served in the United States Army and deployed to Iraq with his National Guard unit. Mr. Liberty served in the United States Marine Corps and protected United States Embassies abroad. Mr. Heard served in the United States Marine Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"These veterans were working in Iraq in 2007 as security contractors responsible for securing the safety of United States personnel. When the convoy attempted to establish a blockade outside the 'Green Zone,' the situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians," the White House statement adds.
The statement also said that the lead Iraqi investigator in the case "may have had ties to insurgent groups himself."
In a statement to Military.com, lawyer John Maher, a former military judge advocate general who represented Heard, said his client was "a decorated combat Marine and we believe the president exercised his constitutional powers to check and balance another branch of government who got it wrong."
"Our constitutional system provides for this action, and on the facts of Dustin's case, the president did the right thing where the courts, in this instance, came up short," Maher said. "To send him home to his loving family before the holiday is befitting of our country's traditions of the rule of law."
Maher is supported by the nonprofit United American Patriots, which funds legal defenses for service members the group believes to have been unjustly charged.
In scathing terms, other former JAGs said Trump had abused the pardon power in the Blackwater cases.
"In my opinion, the Blackwater pardons are obstructions of justice by a sitting president," said Gary Solis, a retired Marine who served combat tours in Vietnam before becoming a JAG.
The Blackwater convictions were in federal court, not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But the crimes charged "had serious ramifications on U.S.-Iraqi relations, including long-lasting impacts on military-civilian relations. That translates to combatant deaths and woundings," Solis said.
"These pardons are exercises of raw political power that the founders never envisioned -- naked ego-driven acts of political irresponsibility," he said in a statement to Military.com
Solis' opinion is in line with that of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel E. VanLandingham, a former judge advocate general and now a professor at Southwestern Law School in California.
The Blackwater Four "massacred innocent Iraqi civilians," VanLandingham told Military.com
"Part of the goal of criminal law, in addition to sending a deterrent message regarding similar future behavior by others, is to also signify that those innocent lives had meaning. Their lives mattered," she said. "That is, the criminal punishment these men were given reinforced that these lives had meaning and were wrongly taken.
"The harm Trump's pardons do goes well beyond the individual lives taken and their communities. Trump has now sent a message that America doesn't care about Iraqi lives, even when wrongly taken," VanLandingham added.
Pardons in Waiting
In a statement to Military.com on Friday, Gurfein said in reference to the Blackwater cases, "We are very pleased the president has pardoned those who have demonstrated a high degree of service to our country."
In addition to the Bales case, United American Patriots is backing pardons or clemency for Lorance; former Army Sgt. Michael Williams; former Army 1st Sgt. John Hatley; former Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs; and former Army National Guard Sgt. Derrick Miller, Gurfein said.
After receiving a pardon in 2019, Lorance is petitioning to clear his record of the conviction.
Williams pleaded guilty at court-martial in 2005 to murdering an Iraqi civilian in a Baghdad suburb and was sentenced to 25 years in prison He was paroled and released in 2014. Gurfein said that UAP is seeking to have Trump disapprove the findings of the court-martial and the sentence in granting Williams a full pardon.
Maher, backed by UAP, has filed a petition for pardon for Hatley, who was released on parole in October from Fort Leavenworth after serving 11 years on what initially had been a life sentence. He was convicted at court-martial of participating in the murders of four Iraqi prisoners in 2007.
Gibbs was convicted of participating in the murders of three unarmed Afghans in 2009 and 2010 as the alleged ringleader of a self-styled "kill team," and was sentenced to a life term.
Miller was sentenced to a life term in 2011 for the alleged murder of an Afghan during an interrogation in 2010; he claimed it was an act of self-defense. He was paroled after serving eight years and is seeking to have his conviction erased.
The UAP is also seeking the "dismissal with prejudice" of cases that have not yet gone to court-martial for the so-called "MARSOC-3" -- Gunnery Sgts. Danny Draher and Josh Negron, and Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet, Gurfein added.
The three allegedly were involved in an altercation with Lockheed Martin contractor Rick Anthony Rodriguez, a former Green Beret, at a bar in Irbil in the northern Iraq Kurdish region on New Year's Eve 2018. In a fight outside the bar, Rodriguez was knocked out and later died. The two Marines and Gilmet have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and other offenses.
In an interview with Military.com earlier this month, Gurfein stressed that the UAP does not argue for blanket dismissal of charges against troops in combat zones, but rather focuses on cases where the group believes that a service member has been charged unjustly, or has been the victim of prosecutorial misconduct or political pressure.
"If individuals do something wrong -- great," Gurfein said, "[but] we've seen time and again that the military justice system can also get it wrong."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.