The Navy Wants to Push Out Problem SEALs. But Trump May Get in the Way.

Dave Philipps
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, right, and his wife, Andrea Gallagher leave a military court on Naval Base San Diego, Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in San Diego. A military jury acquitted a decorated Navy SEAL of premeditated murder Tuesday in the killing of a wounded Islamic State captive under his care in Iraq in 2017. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Spiking drinks with cocaine, shooting Iraqi civilians, strangling a Green Beret: The Navy SEAL teams have been rocked by one high-profile scandal after another in recent months, and the leader of the elite commando force, Rear Adm. Collin P. Green, has vowed to clean house.

Green has come down hard on misconduct, fired two key leaders and made an unusually public admission that the Navy’s secretive warrior caste has an “ethics problem.” At the same time, though, he has steered wide of the SEAL at the center of one of the grimmest episodes, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was charged with shooting civilians, murdering a captive Islamic State fighter with a knife, and threatening to kill witnesses.

Gallagher was acquitted of murder charges this summer, but evidence that he had engaged in a range of other misconduct, including theft and drug use, had come to light during the investigation. Green and other Navy leaders were planning to demote him and force him out of the SEALs — sending a message that such conduct had no place in one of the country’s premier fighting forces.

None of that has happened, though, because one of Gallagher’s most vocal supporters happens to be the commander in chief. President Donald Trump has repeatedly intervened, and has posted so many expressions of support for the SEAL on Twitter that the Navy now sees Gallagher as untouchable, according to three Navy officials familiar with the case. Any talk of punishment has been shelved, not only for the chief, but for two other SEALs who had been facing possible discipline in the case, these officials said.

Trump helped Gallagher get released from confinement before his trial, and personally congratulated him on Twitter when he was acquitted.

“People want to hold these guys accountable,” said one Navy officer who was involved in the punishment deliberations. “But they are afraid that if you do anything, minutes later there will be a tweet from the White House, and the officer in charge will get axed.”

The officer, like others interviewed for this article, asked that his name not be used because he feared retaliation.

The president has previously made it clear that he believes the country should tread carefully when calling American troops to account for acts of war. Only last week, he announced on Twitter that the White House was reviewing the case of Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, a former Army Special Forces soldier charged with murder in the death of a Taliban bomb maker in Afghanistan. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” Trump wrote.

The issue in Gallagher’s case became apparent to Green’s team in August, when the chief’s lawyers — including one of Trump’s personal lawyers, Marc Mukasey, who joined the defense team two months before the June court-martial — had tried and failed to persuade Navy commanders to suspend any punishment. Soon after that, the president brought up the Gallagher case at a meeting with the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations, according to a senior Navy official.

White House officials strongly denied that the Gallagher case was discussed. But hours after the meeting, the Chief of Naval Operations announced that he would personally take over the Gallagher case from another admiral, who had indicated that she planned to punish the chief.

The Navy had also planned to discipline two other SEALs who had come under investigation in the Gallagher case: Lt. Jacob Portier, who was charged with not reporting Gallagher’s actions in Iraq; and Special Operator 1st Class Corey Scott, a platoon medic whose testimony at the chief’s trial prompted the Navy to open a perjury investigation. But the day after the White House meeting, the charges against Portier were dropped and the investigation of Scott was ended.

The intervention from Washington left Navy leaders with a dilemma: Not punishing Gallagher and the others would undermine efforts to restore discipline in the ranks, but punishing them only to be publicly reversed might make things even worse.

“All that’s off the table now,” said a Navy Special Warfare officer who was briefed on the most recent deliberations of Green’s team about the matter. Navy commanders grew concerned that if they took away from Gallagher the Trident pin that signifies membership in the SEALs, only to see the president give it back again, the officer said, “it sends a message that the commanders aren’t in control.”

While taking no action against Gallagher, the Navy recently fired two senior leaders of the team on which Gallagher serves, SEAL Team 7, which has had other recent incidents of misconduct. The command cited a “loss of confidence that resulted from leadership failures.”

The two leaders, Cmdr. Edward Mason and Master Chief Hugh Spangler — both decorated career SEALs with unblemished records who took command of the team after Gallagher had been arrested — filed a complaint with the Navy’s inspector general over their firing. They said that they had become “expendable scapegoats” in the admiral’s fight against an anti-authoritarian “Gallagher effect” that was threatening to spread through the force.

With his new, protected status, Gallagher appears to be trolling Navy leadership.

A few days after the demoted leaders filed their complaint, an Instagram account belonging to Gallagher and his wife started selling T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “The Gallagher Effect.”

Another recent Instagram post from the account referred to Green and another top Navy leader as “a bunch of morons.”

And in a photo posted on social media by a former member of his platoon, Gallagher is seen gripping a hunting knife similar to the one Navy prosecutors said he used to kill a captive fighter from ISIS, which is also known by its Arabic name, Daesh. The post, which was “liked” by Gallagher’s account, included the hashtags #WeDon’tHaveAnEthicsProblem and #NoOneCriesOverSpilledDaesh.

Timothy Parlatore, a lawyer for Gallagher, said the Instagram account is administered by the chief’s wife and does not reflect the chief’s views.

The original criminal charges against Gallagher, 40, stemmed from his fifth combat deployment with the SEALs, when he led a platoon fighting ISIS in Iraq in 2017. In a text message sent to his supervisor before deploying, he said he did not care where the Navy sent him, as long as there was “sure action,” adding, “We just want to kill as many people as possible.”

He ended up in an advisory role largely behind front lines. But several men under his command told Navy authorities that he remained fixated on killing, and said they saw him shoot civilians with a sniper rifle and stab a captive teenage ISIS fighter in the neck. Their reports eventually led to the war crimes charges filed against the chief.

After Gallagher was arrested in 2018, his family appeared repeatedly on Fox News, insisting that he had been wrongly accused. Soon Trump became a supporter, praising Gallagher’s “past service to our country” on Twitter. Trump directed the Navy to release the chief from pretrial confinement in the spring of 2019 and ordered paperwork to pardon him before his trial in June.

During the trial, the Navy’s case against Gallagher fell into disarray as a key witness, Scott, changed his story on the stand and prosecutors canceled the testimony of other witnesses, fearing they would do the same. A jury made up largely of seasoned combat veterans found Gallagher not guilty of nearly all counts.

After the acquittal, the president congratulated him on Twitter saying, “Glad I could help!”

But Green was worried about the message that the Gallagher case was sending to the rest of force. In July, he sent a letter to the SEAL teams warning that the spate of incidents of drug use and violence in the SEAL teams showed “we have a problem,” and that leaders “must now take a proactive approach to prevent the next breach of ethical and professional behavior.”

In Gallagher’s case, though he had been acquitted on the murder charge, Navy officials were considering administrative punishment for other possible misconduct uncovered during the investigation.

The Navy had found unauthorized grenades, stolen equipment and illicit drugs in his house and in his work locker, according to the Navy’s criminal investigation report. When investigators seized the chief’s phone, they found text exchanges suggesting he was illegally using the narcotic painkiller Tramadol, as well as marijuana and ecstasy.

Gallagher has denied that he did anything unlawful in Iraq, and his lawyer, Parlatore, said the purported drug and equipment offenses had already been investigated and had been deemed insignificant.

The part of the case taken over by the chief Navy officer in Washington concerns the minor charge on which Gallagher was convicted in the trial — posing for a photo with a corpse. The officer hearing the case had recommended that the chief be demoted by one rank, with the possibility that he could be further reduced to the lowest rank in the military, E-1. The regional commander overseeing the court-martial, Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar, had the authority to adjust or overturn the conviction and sentence.

Gallagher’s legal team pressed Bolivar to suspend his punishment so the chief could retire from the Navy with full rank and a clean record. Bolivar replied in a letter Aug. 1 that she found the chief’s conduct reprehensible and had no intention of suspending his sentence.

That was when the chief’s legal team informed the Navy that they would “take their case to Washington,” according to a Navy official with knowledge of the exchange. On the same day that Bolivar’s letter was sent, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John M. Richardson, along with the Secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, went to the White House for a meeting with Trump.

A senior Navy official said the two men had not expected to discuss the Gallagher case, and were surprised when the president brought it up, expressing his displeasure that prosecutors had received commendations for what he regarded as a botched handling of the case.

Though White House officials insist the case was not discussed, within hours of the meeting, Richardson took the Gallagher, Portier and Scott cases from Bolivar.

Charges against Portier were then dismissed, and the investigation of Scott was halted. Neither man responded to requests for comment.

Parlatore said he had not contacted the White House and had no knowledge of any intervention by the president. He said he welcomed the president’s involvement if it happened because his client was threatened with punishment for minor misconduct that is often overlooked in the SEAL teams. “If the president has a deterrent effect and can prevent retaliation, we’re thankful for that,” he said.

A new Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Michael M. Gilday, took command in August, but has not changed course. His final decision in the Gallagher case is expected by the end of October.

Green was not available to discuss the case, according to Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a Navy spokeswoman, who added that “it would be inappropriate to speculate on any administrative actions, as no decisions have been made.”

On the night of the leadership demotions in Team 7, Gallagher made an unauthorized appearance at a “Patriot Awards” gala in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Both men accepted awards from country music star Charlie Daniels.

“What an honor,” a post on Gallagher’s Instagram account said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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