Navy SEALs tried for months to report superior for war crimes and were told to 'let it go”
Navy SEALs who witnessed their platoon chief commit war crimes in Iraq were encouraged not to speak out, and told they could lose their jobs for reporting him at a private meeting with a superior officer last year, according to new reports from The New York Times. A confidential Navy criminal investigation obtained by the Times reveals that the commandos saw Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher stab and kill an unarmed teenage captive, shoot to death a young girl and old man, and fire indiscriminately into crowds of civilians. But when the men on Gallagher’s team called a private meeting with their troop commander and demanded an investigation, they were told to stay quiet on the matter, and no action was taken. The group of seven SEALs eventually were able to force an investigation, and Chief Edward Gallagher was arrested in September on more than a dozen charges, including premeditated murder and attempted murder. The court-martial centers on a charge that Gallagher stabbed to death a teenage member of the self-proclaimed Islamic State while the unarmed youth was being treated by a medic. The trial begins May 28. If convicted, Gallagher could face life in prison. We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and national correspondent for The New York Times Dave Philipps. His latest piece is headlined “Navy SEALs Were Warned Against Reporting Their Chief for War Crimes”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The New York Times is reporting that Navy SEALs who witnessed their platoon chief commit war crimes in Iraq were encouraged not to speak out, and told they could lose their jobs for reporting him at a private meeting with a superior officer last year. According to a confidential Navy criminal investigation obtained by the Times, the commandos said they saw Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher stab and kill an unarmed teenage captive, shoot to death a young girl and old man, and fire indiscriminately into crowds of civilians. But when the men on Gallagher’s team called a private meeting with their troop commander and demanded an investigation, they were told to stay quiet on the matter, and no action was taken. The group of seven SEALs eventually were able to force an investigation, and Chief Edward Gallagher was arrested in September on more than a dozen charges, including premeditated murder and attempted murder.
AMY GOODMAN: The court-martial centers on a charge that Gallagher stabbed to death a teenage member of the Islamic State while the unarmed youth was being treated by a medic. Gallagher allegedly also photographed members of his platoon posing with the corpse, in what was dubbed a “re-enlistment ceremony.” Gallagher then reportedly texted a photo of the dead captive to another SEAL, saying, quote, “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.”
According to legal filings obtained by the Navy Times, two other SEAL petty officers have said Gallagher bragged about killing, quote, “10-20 people a day or 150-200 people on deployment.” A fellow sniper told investigators Gallagher claimed, quote, “he averaged three kills a day over 80 days.” The investigation also unveiled the words “Eddie G puts the laughter in Manslaughter” were once scrawled on the wall of a kill site in Mosul, Iraq.
Gallagher’s trial begins May 28th. If convicted, he could face life in prison. The Navy has also charged Gallagher’s boss for failing to report a war crime and for destroying evidence.
Joining us now from Colorado Springs, Colorado, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Philipps, national correspondent for The New York Times, his latest piece headlined “Navy SEALs Were Warned Against Reporting Their Chief for War Crimes.”
Dave Philipps, welcome to Democracy Now! This is an explosive piece. Tell us about how you found out, how you discovered this story, what happened to this platoon and their allegations.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, thanks for having me on.
The story, of course, first came to my attention when he was arrested and charged. Whenever a chief of a platoon is arrested and charged with manslaughter and murder, you immediately pay attention and try and figure out what’s going on behind the scenes, because, as grim as it may sound, it would be very easy to make this type of thing go away if everyone was on board. You can imagine a platoon in a place like Mosul. If someone wanted to kill someone who didn’t necessarily fall into the legal parameters, that could happen, and no one would say anything, if everyone was OK with it. But what struck me is that there was a schism in this platoon, where clearly there were people who were not OK with what was going on, and thought the chief had gone over the line. So, when I saw his arrest, I really wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes.
And I was lucky enough to get a really rare look at these confidential documents, about 500 pages of a Navy criminal investigation, that interviewed these SEALs, that included hundreds of text messages from the chief’s seized phone. And they really gave us an almost unprecedented look at how these things unfolded. And as you mentioned at the top, there was a lot of details in there of killing, of indiscriminate shooting.
But what also struck me, over and over again, is, you have one SEAL who is accused of doing things that went beyond the law and murdering people, but then you have seven SEALs, at least, who stood up and said, “This is wrong. Our superior is doing something wrong,” and they did what they are supposed to do. According to the documents and what they told investigators, they went to their chain of command and tried for months to get an investigation started. And they were told, I think—I don’t know what the motivation behind it was, but they were told, “Look, decompress. Don’t worry about this. This could ruin your career. You might want to think about this. This could take down other people.” And, you know, they were really frustrated that even though they saw something abhorrent, their chain of command seemed unwilling to act.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last month, President Trump tweeted, quote, “In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!” President Trump tweeted. So, Dave, can you talk about that, the fact that President Trump has intervened on his behalf? This man, as the investigation finds, is not only accused of killing a 15-year-old boy who was an ISIS captive, being treated by a medic when he was shot by Gallagher; he killed a girl in Raqqa, an older unarmed man. And even before this in Iraq, what he did in Iraq, in Afghanistan he had killed a little Afghan girl who was being held by a man who was Gallagher’s target. He shot the girl and killed both of them, to get to the man.
AMY GOODMAN: And stabbed a teenage boy.
DAVE PHILIPPS: That’s right. So, when Chief Gallagher was arrested in September, the Navy took a somewhat unusual move of asking that he be confined in the Navy brig until his trial. And the reason that they did is they say that they had found evidence that he was trying to intimidate witnesses and tamper with the investigation, and so they wanted him in a place where he couldn’t do that.
His family took up his cause—both his brother, Sean Gallagher, and his wife, Andrea Gallagher—saying, “Here’s a man who’s supposed to be innocent unless proven guilty. He hasn’t had his day in court. He has an exemplary career”—which is absolutely true—”and yet he’s being put in a cell before he’s ever found guilty of anything.” And they found that—they said that that was absolutely outrageous. They said that the reason these allegations had come out was not because the SEAL chief had done anything wrong, but because his platoon was unable to meet his exacting standards. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Actually, Dave, we have Andrea Gallagher, the wife of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, speaking with WVW TV earlier this year.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Let’s listen, because this leads to why Trump intervened.
ANDREA GALLAGHER: He was named number one chief.
KAREN VAUGN: Number one chief.
ANDREA GALLAGHER: Number one platoon. He was tasked to clear Mosul, and he did it in half the time. So, when Mattis said, “Take the gloves off,” my husband listened.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Eddie Gallagher’s wife. Continue, Dave Philipps.
DAVE PHILIPPS: They made this case that—in the media, and really found resonance in conservative media outlets and in conservative lawmakers. So, very quickly, a number of Republican congressmen, led by Duncan Hunter of California, signed on, you know, demanding that he be let out of the brig. And they intervened directly—or, excuse me, spoke directly to President Trump. President Trump, I believe, within a few—
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Duncan Hunter, who you just mentioned, the congressmember, Republican congressmember from California.
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: You have lawyers, that don’t know what the word “combat” means, prosecuting guys for killing the enemy. So, even if everything that the prosecution said is true—so let’s say that Chief Gallagher killed a verified designated ISIS combatant—my answer is: “So what?” That’s his job, to close with and destroy the enemy through fire and close combat. That’s what our military does. We would not have won World War I, we would not have won World War II, if we would have fought the way that we have to fight now.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the indicted Congressmember Duncan Hunter, the Republican from California. Dave Philipps, describe what he is on trial for—for example, the knifing to death of this 15-year-old teenager.
DAVE PHILIPPS: What his platoon members told investigators is that the chief kind of went off the rails when he got to Mosul, Iraq. They were supposed to be in an advise-and-assist role supporting Iraqi special forces. And they were supposed to do some oversight with drones and snipers. His job was to be the tactical lead, the person who sits in the back and comes up with the plans. But instead, he spent much of his time in a hidden sniper hide, where, other snipers said, he shot, depending on who you ask, three times as much or 20 times as much as other snipers.
And as you mentioned at the top, he bragged about how many people he killed. Now, a lot of that may have just been boasting. We don’t know how many of those shots actually hit anyone. But there are specifics where other snipers say they witnessed him killing what they saw as people who were clearly civilians. There was one case where a group of girls were walking along the river that runs through the center of the city. And one of the girls, wearing a flowered hijab, was shot down. And they watched her collapse and her friends drag her away. In another case, a couple of old men in wispy white beards were along the river, as well, and one of them was shot in the back. And the snipers say that in both these cases it was Eddie Gallagher who took those shots.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dave—
DAVE PHILIPPS: Now, the case that you mentioned at the top—sorry, go ahead.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We wanted to—very quickly, before we conclude, what do expect to come of the trial?
DAVE PHILIPPS: This is going to be really hard for a prosecutor to prove, as damning as the facts seem. This wasn’t investigated until a year later because of the delays. Much of the physical evidence that might have been able to be taken was gone. There is no body for any of these murders. A lot of it comes down to testimony. And so, I think that it’s a very open question, what happens.
AMY GOODMAN: And the killing of this teenager, you were just about to say?
DAVE PHILIPPS: This is a captive. They called him an enemy, but clearly a captive fighter, someone who’s protected by the Geneva Conventions and our own laws of war. He should have been cared for, and he was, by the other SEALs. But what the SEALs say is, then Edward Gallagher came over and, without really saying anything, took out a custom knife and stabbed him in the neck and in the torso and killed him.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Dave Philipps. We’ll certainly link to your exposé in The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, correspondent for the Times. The piece headlined “Navy SEALs Were Warned Against Reporting Their Chief for War Crimes.”
And that does it for our broadcast. I’ll be speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, and we’ll be showing our film Four Days in Occupied Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony. That’s Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Genetics and Plant Biology Building in Berkeley. Check our website. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.