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Navy: Witness in SEAL war crimes trial may face perjury charge

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego with his wife, Andrea Gallagher. (Andrew Dyer/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A San Diego-based Navy SEAL who testified in a murder trial last week that he — not the defendant — killed a wounded ISIS fighter was told he could face perjury charges related to that testimony, according to an email from a Navy attorney.

The news, first reported by The New York Times, is the latest disruption in the troubled prosecution of Navy SEAL Chief Edward R. Gallagher, whose case is being tried at Naval Base San Diego. Gallagher, 40, is charged with killing a wounded teenage ISIS fighter he was treating in Iraq during a 2017 deployment. He’s also charged with shooting civilians and, on other occasions, firing indiscriminately at other non-combatants.

Gallagher denies all the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

In an email obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune, Navy Capt. Don King, the staff attorney for the Navy admiral overseeing the court-martial, told Petty Officer Corey Scott’s attorney that Scott was subject to prosecution for perjury.

Scott, a medic who deployed with Gallagher and SEAL Team 7’s Alpha Platoon in 2017, testified last week that he and Gallagher were treating the teenage fighter who appeared to be suffering from “blast lung.” Part of the treatment involves making an incision just below the Adam’s apple and inserting a breathing tube.

Scott testified that he saw Gallagher stab the fighter once with his knife. Then Scott stunned the court by saying, when asked about how the fighter died, that he, Scott, covered the man’s breathing tube with his thumb until the fighter suffocated.

In the Navy’s email to Scott’s lawyer, King says Scott “testified directly contrary to previous official statements — thus exposing him to prosecution.”

Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Naval Special Warfare in San Diego, said Wednesday the Navy has yet to decide if it will charge Scott.

“SO1 Scott was granted administrative immunity in exchange for a promise of truthful testimony,” Lawrence said in an email. “We are reviewing his testimony in light of his previous statements and no decisions have been (made).”

Gallagher’s lead civilian defense attorney, Timothy Parlatore, said Wednesday the Navy’s threatened charges were “pure vindictiveness.”

“They’re trying to save face and blame Corey Scott for their failures,” Parlatore told the Union-Tribune. “They never properly investigated this case.”

Scott testified under a sweeping immunity grant from the Navy and the Justice Department. If Scott is found to have committed perjury, those immunity arrangements go away and Scott could be subject to further prosecution.

The judge in the court-martial, Navy Capt. Aaron Rugh, said early Wednesday that he has been clear that testimony provided by witnesses with immunity can’t be used for charges other than perjury that occurred in court.

Navy prosecutor Lt. Scott McDonald accused Scott of lying on the witness stand, saying that in multiple prior interviews with prosecutors and NCIS, Scott never said the fighter died by suffocation.

Wednesday was the first day of the defense’s case in Gallagher’s court-martial. The defense called two Marines who worked with Gallagher’s platoon in Iraq; both testified they had not received reports of war crimes at the time.

One, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Vanderpool, said several SEALs complained about Gallagher’s leadership and aggressiveness. Vanderpool said Gallagher had issues with some of his men, too.

“You could tell he was frustrated with his guys,” Vanderpool said.

Two SEALs from the platoon also testified for the defense.

Master Chief Brian Alazzawi said he had spent a week with Gallagher, including time in the sniper tower where prosecutors say Gallagher shot civilians. Alazzawi said he never saw Gallagher do that.

Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Graffam also testified he had been with Gallagher several times in the tower, serving as his spotter. He said he never saw the chief shoot civilians but he saw Gallagher shoot an unarmed man dressed in black who he said was moving “tactically” between structures.

Parlatore told the Union-Tribune this shooting was an example of a “good shoot.” Gallagher’s criminal charges do not mention this shooting.

Some of the SEALs’ testimony appeared to confirm parts of the prosecution’s case.

Defense attorneys and Gallagher’s family have said repeatedly in interviews that Gallagher’s teammates waited “months” or “a year” before reporting their chief for war crimes. They said that stories about Gallagher shooting civilians from the sniper tower were “made up” months later by SEALs planning a “mutiny.”

However, Graffam testified that on the same day he saw the man in black get shot, another witness, Petty Officer 1st Class Dylan Dille, told him he had seen a civilian wearing white get shot and Gallagher said something over the radio: “You guys missed but I got him.”

Graffam testified he did not see this.

Also Alazzawi testified that Chief Craig Miller told him about the stabbing in October 2017, a month after he came back from Iraq.

Alazzawi testified that he could tell that September that something was wrong. When Miller told him about the stabbing, Alazzawi said he told Miller to report it to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Alazzawi testified that Miller said he didn’t want Gallagher arrested; he just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lead troops in combat again.

The following January Alazzawi learned a group of SEALs were on their way to knock on the door of the commodore of Navy Special Warfare Group 1, he said.

Another SEAL, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, ordered Alazzawi to intervene before the group made it to the commodore’s office, Alazzawi said.

Breisch had served as the platoon’s troop commander during the 2017 deployment. Alazzawi testified that he did stop the group.

It wasn’t until April 2018 that NCIS launched its investigation. In early May, according to court testimony, prosecutors sent Breisch a “target letter” informing him he was under investigation for allegedly covering up war crimes.

A Naval Special Warfare spokeswoman declined to comment on Breisch, who has not been charged and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

“Military judicial proceedings exist to determine the facts of the case,” Lawrence said in an email. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on those ongoing military judicial proceedings.”

On Thursday, Parlatore plans to play a video deposition from the Iraqi general who brought the teenage ISIS combatant to the SEALs in 2017; he says Gallagher never stabbed the injured fighter. Another witness, a Marine staff sergeant, also is expected to testify.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.