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Court-martial for SEAL platoon commander accused of Iraq war crime cover-up to begin Tuesday

By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: January 19, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Military prosecutors will begin court martial proceedings Tuesday against a Navy SEAL platoon commander they say was complicit in suspected war crimes committed by one of his troops in Iraq in 2017.

Lt. Jacob X. Portier will face charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, willful dereliction of duty, failure to obey orders, obstruction of justice and making false official statements.

Those charges are connected to allegations that a member of his platoon, Navy SEAL Edward R. Gallagher, a chief special warfare operator, committed several war crimes in Mosul, Iraq. Gallagher has been charged with premeditated murder, shooting civilians and attempting to intimidate witnesses after he learned he was under investigation.

Gallagher’s case has generated international headlines. He was arraigned in San Diego earlier this month and is scheduled for trial Feb. 19.

Members of Gallagher’s platoon reported that while they were in Mosul, a wounded teenage ISIS combatant was brought to Gallagher — who is a medic — and while he was providing medical care, the SEAL used his knife to stab the fighter in the neck, killing him.

Some time after that, Gallagher re-enlisted in a ceremony held next to the fighter’s dead body.

Two of Portier’s charges stem from that re-enlistment.

Prosecutors say Portier not only conducted the ceremony, but he ordered members of the platoon to pose for photos with Gallagher and the corpse of the combatant.

Navy prosecutors also said that throughout the deployment, other SEALs in the platoon came to their commander with reports about Gallagher’s conduct in battle, including an incident in which Gallagher is accused of shooting two civilians: an old man and a little girl.

“This case is about a Navy lieutenant who didn’t possess the moral courage to do the right thing,” said Marine Capt. Conor McMahon, in closing comments during a November preliminary hearing.

“Lt. Portier didn’t take out a hunting knife and stab a prisoner in the neck. He didn’t get behind a sniper rifle and shoot at a little girl trying to escape from ISIS and he didn’t shoot an old man taking water jugs to the river. But he knew about it and he did nothing,” McMahon said.

Portier’s defense attorney, San Diego-based Jeremiah Sullivan, told the Union-Tribune in November that there are contradicting stories from members of Portier’s platoon that will undermine the prosecution’s case.

“It’s not going to go well for the government,” he said.

Portier also is charged with obstruction of justice and two counts of making false official statements.

The obstruction charge stems from an allegation that the naval officer destroyed evidence. The suspected false statements were made after the unit returned to San Diego.

Portier’s charge sheet details one incident in which the SEAL, when asked whether anything criminal happened in connection with Gallagher’s re-enlistment ceremony, is suspected to have responded, “There was nothing criminal; it was just in poor taste.”

He also is suspected to have made a deceptive statement to a higher-ranking officer when he denied being aware of any specific violations of the law of armed conflict during his platoon’s deployment.

One charge related to the allegations that Portier engaged in a cover-up was dropped.

Portier’s court-martial begins Tuesday with an arraignment on Naval Base San Diego, where charges will be read and a trial scheduled.

Navy officials would not say how much prison time Portier might face. He is not in custody.

Gallagher has been held in a Navy brig on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar since his arrest Sept. 11.

His case continues to generate widespread interest.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is facing trial in September over suspected campaign finance violations and wire fraud, recently visited Gallagher in the Navy brig.

Hunter has issued statements to the media and has sent a letter to President Trump asking him to intervene on behalf of Gallagher. In the letter, Hunter alleged the Navy was treating Gallagher harshly and that privileged attorney-client conversations were under surveillance.

The Navy has denied those allegations.

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