Navy launches review of SEALs, including one cleared by Trump, in war crimes probe
San Diego-based Naval Special Warfare Command is initiating a so-called “trident review” of four SEALs involved in a closely watched war crimes case that divided the tight-knit SEAL community and became a cause célèbre for conservative commentators and politicians.
Among the SEALs coming under review, according to a Defense official with knowledge of the case, are Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, Lt. Thomas MacNeil, Lt. Jacob Portier and Chief Petty Officer Edward R. Gallagher, who was restored in rank to chief by President Trump on Friday.
The four SEALs are to be notified of the review on Wednesday, according to the officials, who are not authorized to speak on the record.
Gallagher was acquitted of most charges he faced, including that he stabbed a wounded Islamic State fighter in his care and shot unarmed Iraqi civilians while deployed in 2017. He was convicted of one count of posing with the fighter’s corpse.
Portier was charged in the probe, and MacNeil and Breisch were witnesses and testified in Gallagher’s court-martial.
The reviews, officially called Navy classification reviews, are administrative actions by the command to determine if service members still qualify to remain in their current positions — in this case, as Navy SEALs.
SEALs wear iconic gold insignia — often called “tridents” — on their uniforms.
The reviews are being held under the orders from the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Collin Green.
The action is seen by some to be a rebuke of Trump’s recent decisions.
Trump has intervened three times in the Gallagher case — once to release him from the Miramar brig before trial; in August, when Trump stripped prosecutors of awards they received after Gallagher’s trial; and again Friday, when Trump overruled a jury’s sentence that reduced Gallagher in rank by one pay grade.
One of Gallagher’s defense attorneys, Timothy Parlatore, said Green’s action launching the review was “outright insubordination” of Trump’s authority as commander-in-chief.
“There’s no purpose to this other than to disrespect the president of the United States and retaliate against Eddie Gallagher,” Parlatore said when reached by phone Tuesday. “Adm. Green is daring the president to fire him.”
According to Parlatore, the decision has already been made to pull the tridents of the SEALs.
Navy Capt. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the SEALs, would not comment on that but emailed the following statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune on Tuesday:
“We have implemented the President’s order to restore Chief Gallagher’s paygrade,” Lawrence said in the email.
“Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command is responsible for the Naval Special Warfare Force. He remains focused on delivering a capable, ready, and lethal maritime special operations force in support of national security objectives, which includes assessing the suitability of any member of his Force via administrative processes.”
In October, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday affirmed the jury’s guilty verdict on the single count in the Gallagher case and upheld its ruling to reduce the SEAL in rank from E-7 to E-6 for appearing in the photo with the deceased Islamic State fighter.
A spokesman for Gilday said in an email Tuesday that the chief of naval operations supported Green.
“Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, supports his commanders in executing their roles, to include Rear Adm. Green,” Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said.
He declined to comment specifically on the trident reviews.
Both Gallagher and Portier were charged in a sweeping war crimes probe last year after Gallagher was reported by fellow SEALs for allegedly stabbing a wounded captured Islamic State fighter to death. Portier was charged with facilitating a cover-up of the killing and with ordering his men to pose for a photo with the corpse.
Gallagher’s prosecution was bogged down with allegations of prosecutor misconduct. Eventually the lead prosecutor, Cmdr. Chris Czaplak, was removed from the case weeks before trial when the judge ruled Czaplak had violated Gallagher’s rights by attempting to track defense attorney emails.
During the trial, a Navy SEAL medic who was on the scene in Iraq testified that he — not Gallagher — killed the fighter, after Gallagher stabbed the fighter.
Portier’s case never went to trial. In August, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson dismissed all charges against Portier.
Jeremiah Sullivan, Portier’s lawyer, echoed Parlatore in an email to the Union-Tribune late Tuesday, also calling Green’s move “insubordinate.”
“Admiral Green has challenged the authority of the President of the United States,” Sullivan said. “Not only is it a poor decision, it is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He should immediately surrender his trident and submit a resignation before he is fired.”
Navy officials did not comment on why the four were undergoing review.
During their investigation of Gallagher, NCIS agents found evidence that the SEAL had abused controlled substances. However, initial drug charges drafted against Gallagher were dropped before his January arraignment.
Portier, who was the commander of Gallagher’s platoon in Iraq, was accused of ordering his men to pose for a photo with the body of the deceased fighter. As his attorney frequently noted, however, he did not appear in any photos himself.
MacNeil, who testified under a grant of immunity at Gallagher’s trial, admitted to drinking alcohol with enlisted SEALs while deployed to Iraq.
Breisch, who was the SEAL troop commander during the 2017 deployment, denied knowledge of the allegations against Gallagher until April 2018 — contradicting testimony of two other SEALs who said he was aware of the allegations as early as October 2017.
In August, Green ordered an ethics review of all the SEALs and Naval Special Warfare, citing a “good order and discipline” problem.
According to news reports, a San Diego-based platoon was kicked out of Iraq in July after a booze-fueled 4th of July party resulted in sexual assault allegations from a military servicewoman against a senior enlisted SEAL. Those allegations were the latest in a string of reported misconduct in the ranks, ranging from drug use to the murder of an Army Green Beret in Mali.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.