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Charges Dropped Against Navy SEAL's Commander

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Navy is dropping all charges against a Navy SEAL commander accused of war crimes. The chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, ordered a review of U.S. Navy prosecutors. This comes after President Trump complained on Twitter about the case that involved a couple of officers, including Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. Steve Walsh of KPBS has been covering all this from San Diego.

Good morning.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were the events that caused the Navy officers to be accused?

WALSH: So this happened in 2017. Eddie Gallagher was charged with premeditated murder for supposedly killing a prisoner in his custody as well as shooting at an old man and a young woman. He was acquitted of those most serious charges, though he still faced a conviction of posing with a corpse on the battlefield. That charge is still out there and hasn't been rescinded. But there was a - his commander, Lieutenant Portier, was scheduled to be - to go on trial in September. In fact, there was a case. He was supposed to be in court this morning before all of this broke.

INSKEEP: Wow. And so this case from Iraq from 2017 has now fallen apart or is being made to go away. What had gone wrong with the prosecution, allegedly?

WALSH: So many things. In the Gallagher case, it was like a Hollywood movie. The Navy JAG officer in charge of the case was removed days before the trial after it was confirmed that he sent these email trackers to the defense and a reporter to find the source of media leaks. The defense called this spying. On the stand, a medic, Corey Scott, who had been granted immunity by naval prosecutors, announced on the stand that he was the one who had actually killed the prisoner, saying it was a mercy killing because he didn't want him to fall into the hands of the Iraqis.

Prosecutors were livid. They accused Scott of lying. In the statement from the Navy, Admiral Richardson specifically said that he wanted to hold authority to take any action against Scott, who has this immunity agreement. Even so, this case doesn't - even though it doesn't specifically mention Gallagher, it definitely references this case. And that's the reason why they're doing this review of JAG.

INSKEEP: Well, in addition to being a legal mess, this became a political mess - didn't it? - because the president spoke up so publicly on behalf of Gallagher.

WALSH: Well, yes. It all came down to these awards that were given out about - oh, about a week after the Gallagher case. The sentence came out where he was acquitted of all these most serious charges. All of the prosecutors in the cases - there were a total of 10 awards that went out praising all of the prosecutors for the work they had done in this case, including Lieutenant Brian John, who had questioned this medic, Corey Scott, on the stand.

The citation - we got a copy of it - said he was preparing the government's most challenging witnesses, saying that he had stepped up and become the lead counsel on the eve of the trial. That's a reference to Czaplak. The prosecutor was removed because of the spying allegations. Trump tweeted out that the awards should be rescinded. And in fact, we've found out the secretary of defense has - excuse me - the secretary of the Navy has actually rescinded those charges. So Trump is intervening rather personally in this case.

INSKEEP: OK. So Eddie Gallagher still faces some charges, has been acquitted of others. His commander walks free. That's the bottom line?

WALSH: That is the bottom line. He walks free and that there was now this review of a naval operation - of JAG operations. Admiral Richardson has ordered the vice chief - oh...

INSKEEP: That - done...

WALSH: And so we'll have to find out how this is going to play out.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll leave it there. Steve Walsh of KPBS, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.