After Navy SEAL's acquittal, fears that war crimes will go unreported

SAN DIEGO — Edward Gallagher, a decorated member of the Navy SEALs, was pleased and relieved when he emerged from his court-martial on Wednesday with just a demotion and time served, and not the life sentence he could have faced if convicted on the most serious charges. But many in the Navy were in no mood to celebrate.

After Navy SEAL's acquittal, fears that war crimes will go unreported

In the two-week trial, Gallagher was accused by fellow SEALs of committing a string of war crimes in Iraq in 2017, including stabbing a wounded captive to death and shooting unarmed civilians with a sniper rifle. The jury found him not guilty of those charges, and convicted him only of posing for inappropriate photos with the captive’s corpse.

The military depends on its own to speak up and report crimes committed on the battlefield, holding one another accountable in environments where no one else can. But some SEAL commanders are worried that the verdict in this case will send a damaging message, discouraging SEALs from reporting similar crimes in the future. And SEALs who served under Gallagher now wonder whether Special Operations troops serving in combat will feel more free to cross the line, as they say he did.

The war crimes trial attracted wide attention and became a rallying cause for conservative politicians and media outlets. President Donald Trump intervened to order that Gallagher be released from pretrial detention. On Wednesday, despite the conviction and demotion, Trump congratulated Gallagher on the outcome of the trial in a Twitter message and added, “Glad I could help!”

Six members of Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, came forward to report the crimes they said they saw Gallagher commit. They worked with Navy investigators and prosecutors for more than a year despite pressure from peers to keep mum and warnings from commanders about harm to their careers. One SEAL sniper said on the witness stand last week that testifying publicly would probably cost him his current position in SEAL Team 6, the most elite commando unit in the Navy.

The lead Navy prosecutor in the trial, Cmdr. Jeff Pietrzyk, told the jury that believing the SEALs’ testimony was crucial not just to the case before them, but to the Navy’s ability to continue to attract top-quality recruits.

“If the truth can’t get out,” he said, “who’s going to let their kids enlist?”

A Navy SEAL official said top commanders who were watching the Gallagher case unfold were stunned at the outcome.

“We don’t bring these charges lightly,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Navy is still investigating aspects of the case. “But we need to show that when young SEALs come forward, they will be listened to.”

Rear Adm. Collin Green, who heads the Navy’s Special Warfare Command, said in a statement Wednesday that the SEALs “take allegations of misconduct seriously.”

“Our community will learn from this experience through critical self-examination and be better for it,” he added. “We must always continue to uphold the highest ethical and professional standards to ensure we preserve the trust and legitimacy with our nation and our global partners.”

The Gallagher court-martial offered a counternarrative to the often heroic image of the SEALs, and exposed a rift in the force between so-called pirates — operators who believed they should have free rein to execute tough combat missions with limited oversight — and others called boy scouts, who saw oversight and strict adherence to ethics as essential to accomplishing those missions.

Members of Alpha Platoon say they reported the captive’s killing to superior officers soon after it happened in 2017, but several leaders in SEAL Team 7’s chain of command either did nothing for months or actively worked to stop an investigation.

In testimony last week, Master Chief Brian Alazzawi said his commander, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, ordered him to stop platoon members from reporting Gallagher to a commodore outside the SEAL team.

One relatively junior SEAL officer, Lt. Jacob Portier, has been charged with failing to report the allegations. He has pleaded not guilty and denies the charges; his trial is scheduled for September.

A day after finding Gallagher not guilty of murder, attempted murder, obstruction of justice and other charges, the military jury of five Marines and two sailors sentenced him to four months confinement — the maximum sentence they could impose — over the inappropriate photos. They also demoted him to special operator first class, from special operations chief; and ordered that he forfeit some pay. The reduction in rank will significantly reduce his retirement pay.

His sentence of four months’ confinement was shorter than the time he had already been held in pretrial detention, so he left the courtroom a free man.

On hearing the sentence, Gallagher looked back at his wife, made a gesture of removing the anchor pins on his collar signifying his rank, shrugged and smiled. Then they hugged.

Standing before the jury during the sentencing hearing Wednesday morning, Gallagher said he was wrong to have posed for photos with the corpse but did not acknowledge any other wrongdoing.

“I put a black eye on the two communities I love, the United States Marine Corps, the United States Navy — specifically the SEAL community,” he said.

He told the jury that he could do better. “I’ve made mistakes in my 20-year career — tactical, ethical, moral — I’m not perfect,” he said. “But I’ve always bounced back from my mistakes.”

The jury deliberated for about two hours before announcing the sentence.

The verdict shocked the platoon members who testified in the trial, according to one platoon member who asked not to be named because he has received death threats from fellow SEALs for participating in the trial.

The witnesses spoke up despite the code of silence in the close-knit SEAL community and the stigma attached to reporting on a fellow member of the SEALs, the platoon member said, only to face a wide backlash in the ranks and be portrayed by conservative media outlets as cowards and conspiratorial liars.

“A lot of the ‘head shed’ are saying we did the right thing,” the platoon member said, referring to the SEAL leadership. “But the mafia, the enlisted guys, they are out for blood.”

He said many of the SEALs who testified now fear they will be sidelined or pushed out of the SEALs.

“There is a dark cloud hanging over every single one of those guys,” the platoon member said. “Everyone is getting squeezed. Some guys decided it wasn’t worth it, and changed their stories. Maybe I was naïve to think that justice would be served.”

Though his court-martial is over, Gallagher could still face further administrative punishment by the Navy over violations of regulations that came to light during the war crimes investigation. The SEAL leadership was still reviewing the case on Wednesday.

Among other things, a search of his house found a live Navy training grenade in his garage. Investigators combing through text messages sent on his phone found detailed conversations about buying and using marijuana and prescription narcotics with other SEALs.

Those infractions could cost him his coveted Trident pin and his status as a SEAL, according to the Navy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gallagher appeared Wednesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” a cable television program that has championed his cause for months. Asked by the host what message he had for future SEALs, he paused for a moment and then said: “To future Navy SEALs, loyalty is a trait that seems to be lost, and I would say, bring that back. You are part of a brotherhood. You are there to watch your brother’s back, he’s there to watch your back — you just stay loyal.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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