WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy relieved the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt’s captain of his command on Thursday, punishing him for the leak of a scathing letter he sent to superiors that sought stronger measures for curbing a coronavirus outbreak aboard the ship.
The removal of Captain Brett Crozier, first reported by Reuters, was announced by acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who said the senior officer of the nuclear-powered vessel of 5,000 crew members had exercised poor judgment in the way he “broadly” distributed his letter.
The dismissal, two days after the captain’s letter leaked, demonstrated how the coronavirus has challenged all manner of U.S. institutions, even those accustomed to dangerous and complex missions like the U.S. military.
His removal could have a chilling effect on others in the Navy seeking to draw attention to difficulties faced at a time when the Pentagon is withholding some detailed data about coronavirus infections to avoid undermining the perception of U.S. military readiness for a crisis or conflict.
Reuters first reported last week that the U.S. armed forces would start keeping from the public some data about infections within its ranks.
Modly said Crozier’s letter was sent through the chain of command but that the captain failed to safeguard its confidentiality.
“I have no information nor am I trying to suggest that he leaked the information,” Modly told a news conference. “He sent it out pretty broadly, and in sending it out pretty broadly, he did not take care to ensure that it couldn’t be leaked, and that’s part of his responsibility.”
“It raised alarm bells unnecessarily.”
About 1,000 sailors - a fifth of Crozier’s crew - were taken off the vessel at the Navy base on Guam, a U.S. island territory in the western Pacific, and placed in quarantine on Wednesday, a week after the first coronavirus case was reported on the carrier.
A total of 114 crew have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the highly contagious virus, Rear Admiral John Menoni, the region’s top Navy commander, told reporters in Guam on Thursday.
The evacuated sailors were being transported in groups to vacant hotels on the island to complete a two-week quarantine, he said.
Although the Navy has said 2,700 crew would ultimately be quarantined off the ship, Menoni insisted on Wednesday the carrier “could go to sea tomorrow” if necessary.
Crozier’s demotion was criticized by Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who described the captain as a patriot “just trying to do what’s best for his crew.”
“I don’t know why you would punish someone for that, especially with so many lives at stake,” he said.
President Donald Trump, when asked about the captain during a White House news conference, disputed the notion that Crozier appeared to have been disciplined for trying to save the lives of sailors.
“I don’t agree with that at all. Not at all. Not even a little bit,” Trump said.
Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden said that the Trump administration showed “poor judgment” in relieving a warship commander who was trying to stem a coronavirus outbreak among his crew.
“Donald Trump’s acting navy secretary shot the messenger - a commanding officer who was faithful to both his national security mission and his duty to care for his sailors, and who rightly focused attention on a broader concern about how to maintain military readiness during this pandemic,” Biden said in a statement to Reuters.
In his four-page letter, Crozier, who took command in November, described a bleak situation aboard the carrier as more of his crew began falling ill.
He called for “decisive action”: removing more than 4,000 sailors from the ship and isolating them, and wrote that unless the Navy acted immediately it would be failing to properly safeguard “our most trusted asset - our sailors.”
The letter put the Pentagon on the defensive and alarmed the families of those on the vessel, whose home port is in San Diego.
The Theodore Roosevelt is just the latest example of the spread of the respiratory virus within the U.S. military. Navy officials say that sailors on a number of ships have tested positive, including an amphibious assault vessel in San Diego.
Modly denied that removing Crozier would have a chilling effect on the Navy command.
“I hope that what this will do, it will reinforce the fact that we have the proper way of handling this,” Modly said.
The Navy is still bruised from avoidable warship crashes in the Pacific that killed 17 sailors in 2017, raising concern about gaps in basic training and the pace of operations. They prompted a congressional hearing and the removal of a number of officers.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Theodore Roosevelt incident “raises critical questions about the Navy’s strategy to combat COVID-19 within the ranks and aboard ships and submarines.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic is urgent and evolving and it is incumbent upon the civilian and uniformed leadership to provide clear guidance not just to the committee, but to our forces and the American taxpayers,” Reed said.
Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Maureen Maratita in Hagatna, Guam, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney