In another day of bold moves by Navy leaders seeking to revamp the sea service’s criminal justice system, officials dismissed a war crimes case dogging four SEALs and transferred a prosecutor plagued by misconduct allegations.
Ending a case that had dragged on for 2 ½ years, Navy Region Southwest’s commander Rear Adm. Bette Bolivar dropped all war crimes charges against Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Daniel V. Dambrosio Jr. and two special operator chief petty officers — Xavier Silva and David N. Swarts — plus their former commanding officer, Lt. Jason L. Webb.
Military prosecutors in San Diego had accused them of abusing detainees at Village Stability Platform Kalach in the Chora District of Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province on May 31, 2012.
Although authorities conceded that most of the abuse stemmed from Afghan Local Police militiamen beating villagers with clubs and car antennas, one detainee allegedly died after a round of brutal questioning, and investigators believed the SEALs could’ve done more to prevent the maltreatment.
Within the closed SEAL community, however, the case was seen as politically driven retribution brought by brass far from the battlefield and spurred by press accounts in late 2015 that pointed a spotlight at a murky Afghanistan counter-insurgency mission three years earlier.
The four SEALs had voluntarily entered non-judicial punishment proceedings, a Trident Review Board and other disciplinary hearings and were cleared, only to be charged at court-martial on Jan. 19, 2017, with what they said was little new evidence brought to the case.
Bolivar had been mulling a plea deal that would send them back to NJP , but on Tuesday she quashed the case, two weeks before a court-martial trial loomed.
“Military prosecutors informed Adm. Bolivar that the evidence from the 2012 case has degraded to the point where they believe obtaining convictions is no longer likely,” said Navy Region Southwest spokesman Brian O’Rourke in a prepared statement emailed to Navy Times.
After consulting with her staff judge advocate, Capt. Donald King, Adm. Bolivar concurred, O’Rourke indicated.
But O’Rourke’s statement didn’t tell the full story.
An email sent by King to defense attorneys and prosecutors provided to Navy Times indicated that Bolivar dismissed the charges “without prejudice,” which means they can be brought back in the future if more evidence arrives or a different convening authority reviews the case.
She also let stand charges related to what officials contend are offensive text messages shared by Webb with the other SEALs. The lieutenant will be the only defendant remaining and the only specification will be tied to those messages.
The email included a message to the lead prosecutor in the case, Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak: “request you inform the judge” about the dismissal, King wrote.
But a different fate awaited Czaplak at a Regional Legal Service Office Southwest overseen by a new commanding officer, Capt. Jennie Goldsmith.
In a prepared statement released Tuesday evening, Navy spokesman Cmdr. Jereal E. Dorsey said in “an effort to move the RLSO SW Trial Department forward,” Goldsmith removed Czaplak as her senior trial counsel and reassigned him to Code 67, the technology, operations and plans section.
She named Cmdr. Phil Hamon to take his place.
Czaplak had served as the lead prosecutor in a similar war crimes case against Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher, who was accused of stabbing to death a wounded Islamic State prisoner of war during a SEAL Team 7 deployment to Iraq in 2017, among other charges.
But Czaplak was gone from the case a month before Gallagher’s case unraveled at trial, with a panel of his military peers on July 2 rejecting all the serious allegations against the highly decorated SEAL.
Navy judge Capt. Aaron Rugh had determined that Czaplak played a key role in violating Gallagher’s constitutional rights before his trial kicked off.
At the heart of the scandal was a warrantless surveillance program featuring Czaplak that was cooked up with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times, allegedly to uncover leaks after questions emerged that military officials were hiding evidence that could clear Gallagher.
Prosecutors and agents also were accused of manipulating witness statements; 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.
The RLSO came under greater scrutiny on July 10, only a week after the Gallagher verdict, when the office’s commanding officer, Capt. Meg Larrea, awarded Navy Achievement Medals to four junior prosecutors under Czaplak.
That sparked a political firestorm because their commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump, took to Twitter on July 31 to announce that he’d ordered Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson to nix the NAMs.
On Monday, Deputy Judge Advocate General Rear Adm. Darse E. Crandall Jr. presided over what was described by the Pentagon as an "accelerated change of command ceremony” for Larrea 14 days before she was slated to relinquish her office to Goldsmith.
It was a private ceremony, without a band or an end of the tour award, officials disclosed.
Gallagher’s civilian defense attorney, Timothy Parlatore, applauded Czaplak’s reassignment but said he “should have been fired the moment that his illegal conduct was confirmed by the court.”
“It was an utter failure of leadership by Capt. Larrea to leave him in that position as long as she did.”
Parlatore urged Navy leaders to reconsider Czaplak’s new post, saying that “the officer who conducts an illegal email spying operation” shouldn’t be put in charge of government technology.
Pentagon leaders told Navy Times to expect far deeper reforms.
In a series of stunning moves that began on Thursday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson removed all post-trial sentencing authority from Navy Region Southwest in the Gallagher case and dismissed another prosecution against Lt. Jacob X. “Jake” Portier, the officer in charge of the SEAL’s platoon in Iraq.
He also ordered VCNO Adm. Bob Burke to undertake a comprehensive review of the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps.