President Trump considering pardons for U.S. troops accused of war crimes

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

President Trump considering pardons for U.S. troops accused of war crimes

May 20, 2019 - 2:45 pm

By Ben Krimmel

President Donald J. Trump has indicated he is considering pardons for several U.S. military members accused or convicted of war crimes, according to The New York Times. 

U.S. officials have told the paper the Trump Administration has asked for paperwork needed to pardon the American troops around the Memorial Day holiday. Reports indicate one request is being made for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a decorated Navy SEAL who is facing charges of premeditated murder in connection with the fatal stabbing of a teenage prisoner under his care in Iraq in 2017. 

Some of the cases that might be considered by the President include former Green Beret Mathew L. Golsteyn, Nicholas A. Slatte – a former Blackwater security contractor found guilty in a deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis – and a group of Marine Corps snipers, including Staff Sergeant Joseph Chamblin, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to wrongfully urinating on a deceased enemy combatant in Afghanistan.

Earlier in May, President Trump issued a pardon for a U.S. soldier convicted for a 2009 killing of a prisoner in Iraq. Former Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, of Oklahoma, was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone after killing a suspected terrorist. After being sentenced to 25 years in prison, his sentence was reduced to 15 years by the Army Clemency and Parole Board and Behenna was granted parole as soon as he was eligible in 2014.

Navy prosecutors have alleged Gallagher, a highly-trained fighter and medic, indiscriminately shot at Iraqi civilians and stabbed to death a captured 15-year-old Islamic State fighter, and then posed with the corpse at his re-enlistment ceremony. He is also accused of shooting an elderly man carting water in Mosul and a month later shooting a girl walking along a riverbank.

At least seven Navy SEAL commandos from Team 7's Alpha Platoon told investigators about alleged war crimes they witnessed Gallagher commit. Investigators said Gallagher had threatened to publicly name fellow SEALs if they reported his actions. Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Joe Warpinski said he was told Gallagher would fire into crowds of Iraqi civilians.

Golsteyn, the former Green Beret whose Silver Star was revoked, is facing murder charges after killing an alleged Taliban bomb maker in Afghanistan in 2010. In interviews, he has defended his actions and sharply criticized Army investigators, including how they've portrayed his case in the media. Golsteyn claims he conducted a routine combat action which is "now being characterized as murder."

"What the Army and, particularly this time, the United States Army Special Operations Command seems to be intent on doing is characterizing an ambush as murder," he said in February interview with Fox News. 

Golsteyn's wife Julie has been a vocal defender of her husband's actions. Appearing in December on Fox News, she said he is not a “cold-blooded murderer" and criticized the Army for their poor treatment of  “good men,” and instead highlighted the cases of Bowe Bergdahl and Chelsea Manning.

After her appearance on the cable network, Trump said he would look into the case.

The President would later tweet about Gallagher's case after seeing a segment about it on Fox News.

Issuing pardons for these service members would not be without controversy. 

In a thread on Twitter, CNN's Jake Tapper relayed a message from one combat veteran who was furious with the idea of the President issuing these pardons. 

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has lobbied for a pardon for Gallagher, who he believes is innocent and can't get a fair trial in a military justice system he called "absolutely broken" and "rigged."

"I hope that he can have a fair trial. I don't trust the Navy to give him a fair trial, but I think that with all the focus on this case, he stands more of a chance of getting a fair trial than he would have if we had not brought to light what I think are all the injustices against him," Hunter said in a May press conference. 

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif), who served as a U.S. Air Force JAG, said he was against the President possibly circumventing military courts by issuing pardons before convictions.

After President Trump pardoned Behenna, the American Civil Liberties Union slammed the decision. 

"This pardon is a presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military's own code of justice," the ACLU's National Security Project Director, Hina Shamsi, said in a statement. "The military appeals court found Behenna disobeyed orders, became the aggressor against his prisoner, and had no justification for killing a naked, unarmed Iraqi man in the desert, away from an actual battlefield. Trump, as Commander-in-Chief, and top military leaders should prevent war crimes, not endorse or excuse them."

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (R) supported Trump's decision to pardon Behenna and said in a statement: “Mr. Behenna served his country with distinction, honor and sacrifice. He has admitted to his mistakes, has learned from them and deserves to move on from this incident without living under its cloud for the rest of his life."

Democratic presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Ind. Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan as a member of the Naval Reserves in 2014, said the possible pardons ran counter to military values.

“The flag I wore on my shoulder represented a country that was known for keeping its word,” he wrote. “But with the president considering pardoning war criminals even after they have been tried by a jury of their peers, that is undermining American moral authority and putting troops at risk.”

Iraq combat Veteran Waitman Wade Beorn wrote in a Washington Post op-ed issuing pardons for war crimes and overlooking serious misconduct is "incredibly dangerous."

"It doesn’t just undermine the enforcement of military justice; it also sends a message to our armed forces about just what kind of conduct the United States takes seriously," he wrote. 

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