After President Trump intervened to stop the Navy from disciplining Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, the service called off reviews of three SEAL officers who were the chief’s superiors in Iraq.
The Navy is dropping its efforts to expel three officers from the elite SEAL commando force over their involvement in the war crimes case surrounding Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, the service said on Wednesday.
The new acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, said in a statement that he had ordered a halt to a review process for the three officers — Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, Lt. Jacob Portier, and Lt. Thomas MacNeil. The three will be allowed to keep the Trident pins that signify membership in the SEALs.
“Given the unique circumstances of these three remaining cases, I have determined that any failures in conduct, performance, judgment or professionalism exhibited by these officers be addressed through other administrative measures,” Mr. Modly said.
He added that the Navy did not deserve “the continued distraction and negative attention that recent events have evoked.”
Mr. Modly became acting secretary on Sunday after a tug-of-war over the Gallagher case between the Navy and the White House led to the forced resignation of Richard Spencer as Navy secretary. Mr. Spencer had approved the start of the review process to eject the chief and the three officers from the SEALs.
General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said on Monday that Chief Gallagher’s case was closed.
The three officers were implicated in various ways in the court-martial of Chief Gallagher, a SEAL platoon leader who was accused by men in his platoon of committing war crimes in Iraq in 2017. He was acquitted of murder and other charges in July by a military court, but was convicted of posing for a trophy photo with a corpse, a relatively minor offense. Mr. Trump intervened in the case several times in the chief’s favor, most recently late last week, when he stopped a similar effort to take the chief’s Trident pin.
Lieutenant Portier was the platoon commander, and Chief Gallagher’s immediate superior, during the 2017 deployment in Iraq. During Chief Gallagher’s trial, a number of SEALs testified that they had told the lieutenant that the chief had killed a captive teenage fighter with a knife and had shot at civilians.
The lieutenant was charged with failing to report those crimes, with holding an enlistment ceremony for Chief Gallagher next to the captive fighter’s corpse, and with destroying evidence. Those charges were dropped in August, shortly after the verdict in Chief Gallagher’s trial. Lieutenant Portier has notified the Navy that he plans to resign.
Commander Breisch, who was the troop commander and Lieutenant Portier’s superior during the Iraq deployment, was also accused of not reporting the crimes, but was never indicted, according to a Navy official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter.
Commander Breisch had served with Chief Gallagher years before on a deployment to Afghanistan, and described their relationship to investigators as close. When SEALs from Chief Gallagher’s platoon took their accounts of the chief’s actions to Commander Breisch, he did not immediately investigate, according to a Navy investigation report, and instead warned platoon members that pressing a criminal investigation could ruin their careers and they should “decompress” and “let it go.”
Lieutenant MacNeil was the assistant to Lieutenant Portier in Iraq and the most junior officer in the platoon. He was one of six SEALs who came forward to report Chief Gallagher for war crimes. During the chief’s court-martial, defense lawyers pointed out that Lieutenant MacNeil had consumed alcohol while deployed in Iraq — which was against regulations — and appeared in a photo with Chief Gallagher and the corpse of the captive.
A Navy Special Warfare officer, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, said that however inexperienced Lieutenant MacNeil may have been, he was an officer and thus was expected to show better judgment.
The commander of the SEALs, Rear Adm. Collin Green, pushed for the chief and the three officers to be stripped of their Tridents as part of a larger effort to restore accountability and tighten discipline in the SEAL teams after a series of high-profile scandals.
But Mr. Trump’s intervention ended the expulsion effort, and many in the SEALs now wonder whether Admiral Green may soon be relieved.
Navy officials said the admiral was concerned about the corrosive effect of Chief Gallagher’s behavior on order and discipline in the force, which he referred to as the “Gallagher effect.”
“The Gallagher effect encompasses all of these companion cases, so when the chairman of joint chiefs says, ‘End the Gallagher review board,’ it means collectively they want to put all these cases to rest,” said Jeremiah Sullivan, a lawyer who represents Lieutenant Portier.
Mr. Sullivan said his client was “thankful for the unwavering support of President Trump.”
Commander Breisch and Lieutenant MacNeil could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
In interviews, SEALs said that halting the review process for Chief Gallagher and the three officers sends a message that their comrades can get special treatment, so long as they have the right connections. They expressed worry that it would undermine efforts to clean up the SEAL teams.
Mr. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, tried to address those concerns in his statement. “My decision in these three specific cases should not be interpreted in any way as diminishing this ethos or our nation’s expectations that it be fulfilled,” he said, referring to the official standards of conduct for the SEALs. “Navy uniformed leaders have my full confidence that they will continue to address challenging cultural issues within the Naval Special Warfare community, instill good order and discipline and enforce the very highest professional standards we expect from every member of that community.”