Navy SEAL case closed as far as top U.S. general concerned

MANAMA (Reuters) - The top U.S. general said on Monday that as far as he was concerned the case of a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct in Iraq was now closed, a day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper removed the Navy’s top civilian over the saga.

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Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Sunday over his handling of the issue of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who had won the backing of President Donald Trump.

“I think at this point the secretary of defense has made decisions (and) the case is now, in my view, it is closed,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a small group of reporters. He was speaking during a trip to the Middle East that included Bahrain.

He added that the hiring and firing of civilian leadership at the Pentagon was out of his purview as the top U.S. general.

“The secretary of defense, President of the United States, are all part of the process and made a decision, as far as I’m concerned, it is case closed now and it is time to move on and address the national security of the United States,” Milley said.

The SEAL was acquitted by a military jury in July of murdering a captured and wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq by stabbing him in the neck, but it convicted him of illegally posing with the detainee’s corpse. That had led to his rank being reduced.

Esper also determined that Gallagher should be allowed to retain his Trident pin designating him as a SEAL - effectively ending the Navy’s efforts to carry out a peer review that could have ousted him from the elite force.

Trump, who publicly opposed taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin and had intervened in the case to restore his rank, cheered Esper’s moves.

“Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin,” Trump said on Twitter.

Spencer last week suggested a possible split with Trump by telling Reuters that Gallagher should still face a peer review board.

The White House said in November that Trump had restored Gallagher’s rank and had pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Critics had said such actions would undermine military justice and sent a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated.

Milley said he believed that the U.S. military remained a disciplined force.

“This case obviously raises a variety of questions, but in the main, I think the United States military remains and will always remain a very highly disciplined force.”

In a letter acknowledging his termination, and seen by Reuters, Spencer took parting shots at Trump and defended the need to preserve “good order and discipline throughout the ranks” -- something Navy officials had believed the peer review board would help ensure.

Trump said he would nominate the U.S. envoy to Norway, Ken Braithwaite, to replace Spencer as Navy secretary.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell