WASHINGTON — The top lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee have urged Navy leaders to block a promotion for the admiral in charge of the service's elite SEAL teams, citing reports that the commander retaliated against suspected whistleblowers.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman and ranking Democrat on the panel, respectively, sent a joint letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last month saying they had "deep reservations" about a pending promotion for Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, the leader of the Naval Special Warfare Command.
The letter from McCain and Reed is the latest - and perhaps most forceful - effort by lawmakers to pressure the Navy to freeze Losey's advancement.
The Washington Post reported in October that the Navy was poised to promote Losey to become a two-star admiral even though Pentagon investigators had determined that he illegally demoted or punished three subordinates during a vengeful but fruitless hunt for an anonymous whistleblower who had reported him for a minor travel-policy infraction.
The Defense Department Inspector General concluded in three separate investigations that Losey had violated whistleblower-protection laws. Navy leaders rejected those findings last fall and decided not to discipline Losey, accepting his explanation that he had taken action against the three staff members not out of retaliation, but because they were poor performers.
Losey, a prominent figure in the military's secretive Special Operations forces, once commanded SEAL Team 6, the clandestine unit known for killing terrorist targets such as Osama bin Laden. He has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Panama, Bosnia, Somalia and other conflict zones, and once worked as a top military aide in the White House.
In their Jan. 14 letter, McCain and Reed said they were "especially troubled" that the Navy would consider promoting Losey even though "he created exactly the type of negative command climate that is so harmful to our military."
Other lawmakers have also expressed concern. In December, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he would block the Navy's nomination of a new undersecretary - the service's second highest-ranking civilian leader -- until it re-examined Losey's status.
Navy officials have defended their decision not to take action against Losey in the whistleblower cases, disputing the evidence that he acted improperly. Losey has also vigorously denied wrongdoing.
After Wyden intervened in December, however, Navy leaders said they nonetheless would take a fresh look at their decision to promote the admiral.
In an email, Rear Adm. Dawn Cutler, the Navy's chief spokeswoman, said Thursday that Losey's promotion "is on hold pending further review." She said the Navy was preparing a response to the letter from McCain and Reed.
The Navy nominated Losey for promotion almost five years ago when he was given a new assignment as the leader of Special Operations forces in Africa. The Senate confirmed his nomination in late 2011, clearing the way for him to pin on a second star.
But things started to go awry almost as soon as Losey took charge of the Africa command. Someone filed an anonymous complaint alleging that he had improperly sought a government-paid plane ticket for his adult daughter.
In fact, Losey had paid for the plane ticket himself, and the complaint was soon dismissed. But enraged by what he saw as an act of disloyalty, the admiral became determined to find out who had blown the whistle, according to reports from the Pentagon's inspector general.
Several staff members testified that Losey drew up a list of suspects and made it known there would be consequences. One witness told investigators that Losey vowed to "find out who did it" and would "cut the head off this snake and we'll end this."
The person who flagged the plane ticket was never identified. But five other people who worked for Losey filed complaints with the inspector general, charging that he had demoted, fired or disciplined them during his hunt for the whistleblower.
As a result, the Navy was forced to delay Losey's promotion until the inspector general could complete its investigations, which lasted for years and involved more than 100 witnesses and 300,000 pages of e-mails. In the end, three of the five complaints were upheld by the inspector general.