SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The immediate superior of a Navy SEAL standing trial charged with murdering a helpless Iraqi prisoner and shooting unarmed civilians testified on Wednesday he had complete confidence in the defendant’s combat tactics and decision-making.
Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Alazzawi, the first defense witness called to the stand in the trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, also described how one of the main accusers in the case had seemed to harbor a grudge against Gallagher.
Gallagher, a decorated career combat veteran, has denied all charges and says he is wrongly accused. The high-profile court-martial, conducted at U.S. Naval Base San Diego, has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who intervened months ago to ease the conditions of Gallagher’s pre-trial confinement.
The judge later released Gallagher here from custody altogether while the proceedings remained under way. [nL2N23702P] The war crimes case stems from his 2017 deployment in Mosul, Iraq.
The Navy opened its investigation in September 2018, about a year after Gallagher and the platoon he led returned from Iraq.
Gallagher is charged with premeditated murder of a wounded, teenage Islamic State fighter in his custody by stabbing the youth in the neck with a knife. He also is charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two civilians - a school girl and an elderly man - shot from a sniper’s perch.
In a stunning setback to the government's case last week, a Navy SEAL medic testifying for prosecutors asserted it was he, not, Gallagher, who caused the Iraqi detainee's death by blocking the youth's breathing tube in what he described as a mercy killing here. [nL2N23R1TW]
Prosecutors accused the medic, Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, of changing his story under oath. Sources close to the case said on Wednesday the Navy is examining possible grounds under terms of Scott’s immunity agreement that might allow him to be prosecuted for perjury.
The thrust of Gallagher’s defense has been that fellow SEAL team members testifying against him, several under grants of immunity, are disgruntled subordinates fabricating the allegations to force him from the Navy.
Testimony from Alazzawi, a multiple bronze star recipient who served as Gallagher’s supervising chief in Mosul, bolstered that narrative.
He told jurors some SEAL team members had complained about items they suspected Gallagher of taking from a platoon care package, and that one of the group, then-Petty Officer Craig Miller, also complained of poor tactics and unnecessary risks by Gallagher.
Alazzawi, however, said Miller and others among the disaffected troops were “very junior” personnel who were untrained for the daytime sniper operations the unit was engaged in under Gallagher’s direction.
“I’ve had nothing but confidence in Chief Gallagher’s tactics and quality of his decisions,” Alazzawi said.
Miller testified last week for the prosecution that he saw Gallagher inexplicably stab the Islamic State prisoner in the neck at least twice with a custom-made knife as the detainee was being treated for severe injuries.
Alazzawi said on Wednesday that Miller did not accuse Gallagher of the stabbing, or of firing on civilians, until after the care package theft was investigated and it became clear no reprimand was coming.
Another Navy SEAL called by the defense, Joshua Graffam, disputed the charge that Gallagher shot an unarmed elderly man by the Tigris River.
Graffam said he was acting as Gallagher’s “spotter” in a sniper’s perch when the shooting occurred, and the person he targeted for Gallagher was an Islamic State fighter dressed in black.
“I was confident it was a good shot. I never saw the elderly man in white,” Graffam said. He added, under questioning, that he would feel confident deploying with Gallagher again.
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool