In a sweeping series of measures announced Thursday night, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson dismissed all charges against a SEAL officer charged with covering up war crimes, stopped the ongoing probe of another special operator petty officer and ordered a comprehensive investigation into the performance of Navy JAG leaders.
“Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson today dismissed all charges in the case of Lt. Jacob Portier. He also withheld authority to take any action in the case of Petty Officer 1st Class Corey Scott," the prepared statement read.
Scott was the SEAL who confessed on the witness stand during the court-martial trial of Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher to murdering a detainee in Iraq in 2017.
Navy officials in San Diego quickly leaked to media outlets that they were starting a perjury probe into Scott’s sworn testimony.
But the military jury hearing Gallagher’s case was swayed by his candid confession that he blocked the breathing tube of a wounded Islamic State fighter so that he wouldn’t be tortured to death later by Iraqi forces.
The statement indicated that Richardson “took this action in the best interest of justice and the Navy.”
“Additionally, as part of an ongoing assessment of Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps performance, Richardson directed Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bob Burke to conduct a Comprehensive Review into the leadership and performance of the JAG Corps. This review is intended to ensure the JAG Corps provides exemplary support to the Navy and the nation,” the statement concluded.
On July 2, a military panel of his peers at Gallagher’s San Diego court-martial trial cleared him on premeditated murder, obstruction of justice and all but one other charge tied to a 2017 deployment with Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, to Iraq.
Gallagher, 40, was found guilty only of appearing in a photograph that depicted him near a dead Islamic State prisoner of war, an allegation he never denied.
A rear admiral continues to mull his sentence and the Navy’s statement on Thursday didn’t address his ongoing litigation.
But it was the Gallagher case that sparked discussions at the highest levels of the sea service into the conduct of Navy JAG Corps prosecutors and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents who probed the war crimes allegations.
Shortly before his court-martial trial kicked off, Navy judge Capt. Aaron Rugh sanctioned the prosecution team for violating the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Part of Rugh’s punishment included booting Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for his role in a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times.
And the spying wasn’t the only allegation of prosecutorial and police misconduct plaguing the case.
They were accused of manipulating witness statements to NCIS agents; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.
On Wednesday, a disgruntled President Donald J. Trump interjected himself into a rising scandal within the sea service, nixing the Navy Achievement Medals recently bestowed on four prosecutors in the Gallagher case.
Although the junior attorneys weren’t implicated by Rugh in the wrongdoing, the president grumbled that they were tied to a tainted team in a losing case.
“Not only did they lose the case, they had difficulty with respect to information that may have been obtained from opposing lawyers and for giving immunity in a totally incompetent fashion,” Trump tweeted.
“I have directed the Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer & Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson to immediately withdraw and rescind the awards.”
The Navy’s top leaders immediately complied with the president’s order and on Thursday night dropped a legal bombshell of their own that they had been crafting since July 2.
News of the Navy’s announcement elated Portier, Scott and Gallagher.
In San Diego, Scott said he’s "profoundly grateful that the president and the chief of naval operations have intervened to exonerate Lt. Portier.
“Lt. Portier was a model of courage on the battlefield in the defeat of ISIS and conducted himself with the same steadfast determination in defending the reputation of his platoon back home.”
Portier’s civilian defense attorney, Jeremiah J. Sullivan III, also thanked Trump for “his unwavering support of our true war heroes.”
“I also want to thank the U.S. Air Force and the Coast Guard who provided outstanding defense counsel. We never gave up the ship,” Sullivan continued. “It was my honor and privilege to represent Lt. Portier. I am grateful for his service to our country.”
Gallagher’s civilian attorney, Timothy Parlatore, was told by Navy Times about the Pentagon’s move shortly before he sat down to dinner with the SEAL.
“I am happy to hear that the senior Navy leadership has stepped in to take control of a situation that has been so badly mismanaged by the Navy JAG Corps and NCIS,” he said.
"The JAG ship has run aground and significant action is necessary to hold those responsible accountable and help restore the trust of every sailor that there will be fair treatment for all under the military’s justice system.
“Our team will be standing by to assist the VCNO in any way necessary. I only hope that this will lead to the Navy allowing Chief Gallagher to put this horrible experience behind him and retire as a Chief Petty Officer.”
“Most Navy JAGs are fantastic in the court room and great to have a beer with after the case,” added Scott’s defense attorney, Air Force Reserve Maj. Brian Ferguson.
“Whatever leadership issues may exist, they’re not issues with rank and file attorneys.”
This is breaking news story and Navy Times will continue to update it.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.