The Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden during the May 2011 raid at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan has his own opinion on a case that threatens to tear apart his former service and further strain ties between President Trump and his military chiefs.
Robert J. O’Neill sides with Mr. Trump in an extraordinary battle of wills over military justice and a commander’s prerogative, saying in an interview he believes Eddie Gallagher should be able to retire as a chief petty officer and the prized Trident pin signifying his membership in the elite SEALs unit.
Mr. O’Neill said he believes Chief Gallagher had been the victim of a vendetta by military bureaucrats and some members of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, better known as NCIS.
“It’s like someone wanted a notch on their belt: They took down a SEAL,” Mr. O’Neill said in a telephone interview on Monday. “They were looking to advance their own agenda.”
But while Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Mark Milley have signaled they’re ready to move on — and President Trump again defended his intervention in a trio of war crimes cases — there was no sign Monday that controversy or the underlying problems that sparked it have been resolved.
Mr. Trump showed no signs of having second thoughts in a session with reporters in the Oval Office Monday.
Mr. Trump said he intervened to “stick up for the warriors,” as opposed to what he characterized as the Obama administration’s leniency for deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and former soldier Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of military espionage.
“I think what I’m doing is sticking up for our armed forces,” Mr. Trump said. “I will stick up for the warriors.”
With the Navy facing performance, budget and morale problems. Mr. Esper seemed anxious to get past the Gallagher case.
“I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now and get fully focused on their warfighting mission,” Mr. Esper told reporters at a hastily-announced press briefing inside the Pentagon.
That may be easier said than done, however.
Although assigned to different SEAL teams — Mr. O’Neill was an “East Coast” guy while Chief Gallagher was assigned to units on the West Coast —Mr. O’Neill said the two have become friends since the war crimes allegations were first raised.
“He’s a great guy. He’s a poster image of what a SEAL should be,” Mr. O’Neill said. “I’d go to war with him tomorrow.”
He doesn’t believe the accusations that Gallagher had committed a string of illegal killings during multiple tours in combat.
“If you’re pulling that – killing unarmed civilians – you’re going to get yanked,” Mr. O’Neill said.
Chief Gallagher was known as a demanding leader within the SEAL community.
“I heard a lot of the younger guys thought he worked them too hard. They had a different work ethic,” Mr. O’Neill said. “And they weren’t quite ready for the reality of war.”
Although Mr. O’Neill said a lot of the rank-and-file members of the Navy SEAL community backed President Trump’s clemency move, others have criticized the president’s decision to intervene aggressively in the military justice system, and overrule military officials pushing to rein in what they see as increasing indiscipline in the ranks.
Complicating the push to move on is the detailed and passionate resignation letter of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who challenged Mr. Esper’s narrative that he was fired for going around his boss to try to cut a deal with the White House on Chief Gallagher. Mr. Spencer insisted he resigned because he could not support the reasons behind Mr. Trump’s actions.
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Mr. Spencer wrote.
And Mr. Spencer has his own supporters.
“It makes no sense that [Mr. Spencer] was fired for upholding the rule of law and a war criminal gets to stay in uniform,” retired Vice Admiral Michael Franken said. Mr. Franken is now running to unseat Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican.
Former NATO commander and Navy Adm. James Stavridis warned the pardons could have a “chilling effect” on “special forces’ willingness to report when they see illegal behavior.”
That is tragic because in the end what separates us from our opponents on the battlefield is our willingness to follow the rule of law,” he told the Associated Press.
The decision to ask Mr. Spencer for his resignation was not specifically about the Gallagher case, Mr. Esper told reporters Monday.
He spoke with Army and Navy leadership weeks ago about the war crimes cases of Chief Gallagher, Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Army Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, a former Green Beret. Everyone agreed, Mr. Esper said, that the best plan was to recommend allowing the military trial system to continue to its natural conclusion.
“We also recognized that the commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers that he is free to exercise — as many presidents have done in the past,” Mr. Esper said.
Mr. Esper said he only learned about Mr. Spencer’s White House back channel from an official there.
“This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to and contrary to Secretary Spencer’s public position,” he said. He and Gen. Milley “were completely caught off guard by this information and realized that it had undermined everything we had been discussing with the president.”
Mr. Esper said he didn’t know how Mr. Spencer would have arranged for the panel of senior non-commissioned officers in the SEAL community to guarantee Chief Gallagher would have kept his Trident pin, no matter the outcome.
“I asked and never got an answer,” Mr. Esper told reporters.
Gisele Donnelly, a military analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, said she also worries how the case will reflect on Mr. Esper’s reputation in Washington.
“People are going to say that [former Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis would never have stood for this,” Ms. Donnelly said, adding she worried the case will only drag the military deeper into partisan politics.
“They’re being treated more or less as just another interest group,” she said. “There is a real concern about lowering the quality of the civil-military relationship.”
The firing of Secretary Spencer does have some strong support from Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said the president and Mr. Esper needs to have someone in that position they can trust.
“It is no secret that I had my own disagreements with Secretary Spencer over the management of specific Navy programs and I look forward to receiving and considering a nomination for the next secretary of the Navy as soon as possible,” Mr. Inhofe said in a statement.
But Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the armed services panel and an Army veteran, said Mr. Trump was guilty of “inappropriate involvement” in the military justice system.
“The White House’s handling of this matter erodes the basic command structure of the military and the basic function of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Mr. Reed said.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.
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