Stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death. Picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost. Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.
Navy SEAL commandos from Team 7’s Alpha Platoon said they had seen their highly decorated platoon chief commit shocking acts in Iraq. And they had spoken up, repeatedly. But their frustration grew as months passed and they saw no sign of official action.
Tired of being brushed off, seven members of the platoon called a private meeting with their troop commander in March 2018 at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. According to a confidential Navy criminal investigation report obtained by The New York Times, they gave him the bloody details and asked for a formal investigation.
But instead of launching an investigation that day, the troop commander and his senior enlisted aide — both longtime comrades of the accused platoon leader, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher — warned the seven platoon members that speaking out could cost them and others their careers, according to the report.
The clear message, one of the seven told investigators, was “Stop talking about it.”
The platoon members eventually forced the referral of their concerns to authorities outside the SEALs, and Gallagher now faces a court-martial, with his trial set to begin May 28.
But the account of the March 2018 meeting and myriad other details in the 439-page report paint a disturbing picture of a subculture within the SEALs that prized aggression, even when it crossed the line, and that protected wrongdoers.
According to the investigation report, the troop commander, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, said in the meeting that while the SEALs were free to report the killings, the Navy might not look kindly on rank-and-file team members making allegations against a chief. Their careers could be sidetracked, he said, and their elite status revoked; referring to the eagle-and-trident badges worn by SEALs, he said the Navy “will pull your birds.”
The enlisted aide, Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Alazzawi, warned them that the “frag radius” — the area damaged by an explosion — from a war-crime investigation of Gallagher could be wide enough to take down a lot of other SEALs as well, the report said.
Navy SEALs are regarded as the most elite commando force in the U.S. military. But that reputation has been blotted repeatedly in recent years by investigations of illegal beatings, killings and theft, and reports of drug use in the ranks. In January, the top commander of the SEALs, Rear Adm. Collin Green, ordered a 90-day review of the force’s culture and training; the results have not yet been made public.
As Gallagher’s men were sounding an alarm about killings in Iraq, his superiors were lavishing praise on him. An evaluation quoted in the investigation report called Gallagher the best chief of the 12 in the team, and said, “This is the man I want leading SEALs in combat.”
A few days after the March 2018 meeting, the chief was awarded a Bronze Star for valor under fire in Iraq.
A month later, the seven platoon members finally succeeded in spurring their commanders to formally report the killings of the three Iraqis to the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, by threatening to go directly to top Navy brass and to the media.
Gallagher was arrested in September on more than a dozen charges, including premeditated murder and attempted murder. If convicted, he could face life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty and denies all the charges.
The chief’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said the Navy investigation report, which was first reported by Navy Times, does not offer an accurate account of what happened in Iraq. He said that hundreds of additional pages of evidence, sealed by the court, included interviews with platoon members who said the chief never murdered anyone.
At the same time, some conservatives have rallied to Gallagher’s defense, raising money and pressing publicly for his release.
Gallagher, through Parlatore, declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Navy has charged Gallagher’s immediate superior, Lt. Jacob Portier, with failing to report the chief’s possibly criminal actions and with destroying evidence. Portier has pleaded not guilty. Through his lawyer, he, too, declined to be interviewed.
The investigation report indicates that a number of other high-ranking SEALs also knew of the allegations against the chief, and did not report them. But no one else has been charged in the case.
Gallagher learned of the March 2018 meeting soon after it happened, the report indicates, and he began working to turn other SEALs against the accusers.
“I just got word these guys went crying to the wrong person,” Gallagher wrote to a fellow chief in one of hundreds of text messages included in the report. To another, he wrote: “The only thing we can do as good team guys is pass the word on those traitors. They are not brothers at all.”
Citing his texts, the Navy kept the chief in the brig to await trial, saying it believed he had been trying to intimidate witnesses and undermine the investigation. He denies that accusation as well.
Family, Republicans in Congress defend SEAL chief
The chief’s wife, Andrea Gallagher, and his brother, Sean Gallagher, have appeared repeatedly on Fox News and other news outlets, calling the chief a hero and demanding his release. They say the allegations against Edward Gallagher were concocted by disgruntled subordinates who could not meet his demanding standards and wanted to get rid of him.
A website soliciting donations for his defense says it has raised $375,000, and a prominent veterans’ apparel maker is selling “Free Eddie” T shirts.
Spurred by the Gallagher family, 40 Republican members of Congress signed a letter in March calling for the Navy to free the chief pending trial, and soon after, President Donald Trump said on Twitter that he would be moved to “less restrictive confinement.” Gallagher was released from the brig and is now restricted to the Navy Medical Center in San Diego, according to a Navy spokeswoman.
Andrea Gallagher did not respond to requests for comment.
Edward Gallagher, who is 39 and goes by the nickname Blade, is known as a standout even among the elite SEALs. Over the course of five deployments with the SEALs, he was repeatedly recognized for valor and cool-headed leadership under fire. He is qualified as a medic, a sniper and an explosives expert, and has been an instructor at BUDS, the force’s grueling training program. To hundreds of sailors he trained, he was a battle-tested veteran who fed them war stories while pushing them through punishing workouts in the surf.
Investigators’ interviews with more than a dozen members of Alpha Platoon, included in the Navy’s criminal investigation report, as well as other interviews with SEALs, offer a more troubling portrait of the chief.
When Gallagher took over leadership of the platoon in 2015, SEALs said, he already had a reputation as a “pirate” — an operator more interested in fighting terrorists than in adhering to the rules and making rank.
A number of platoon members told investigators that at first they were excited to be led by a battle-hardened “legend,” but their opinion quickly shifted after they were deployed to Iraq in February 2017 to help retake Mosul from Islamic State fighters.
The SEALs in the platoon did not respond to requests for interviews for this article. Their names and those of others who have not been identified publicly in court have been withheld from this article at the request of the Navy, because of the covert nature of their work.
A spokeswoman for Naval Special Warfare, Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, said that while they are commandos, SEALs are still expected to follow the same laws as all other troops, adding, “It’s called special operations, not different operations.”
Orders to take risks, to fire at houses
The investigation report said several members of the platoon told investigators that Gallagher showed little regard for the safety of team members or the lives of civilians. Their mission was to advise Iraqi forces and provide assistance with snipers and drones, but they said the chief wanted instead to clear houses and start firefights.
He would order them to take what seemed to be needless risks, and to fire rockets at houses for no apparent reason, they said. He routinely parked an armored truck on a Tigris River bridge and emptied the truck’s heavy machine gun into neighborhoods on the other side with no discernible targets, according to one senior SEAL.
Gallagher’s job was to plan and oversee missions for the platoon, but platoon members said he spent much of his time in a hidden perch with a sniper rifle, firing three or four times as often as other platoon snipers. They said he boasted about the number of people he had killed, including women.
Photos from the deployment that were stored on a hard drive seized by the Navy show the chief aiming sniper rifles and rocket launchers from rooftops in the city.
Two SEAL snipers told investigators that one day, from his sniper nest, Gallagher shot a girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with other girls on the riverbank. One of those snipers said he watched through his scope as she dropped, clutching her stomach, and the other girls dragged her away.
Another day, two other snipers said, the chief shot an unarmed man in a white robe with a wispy white beard. They said the man fell, a red blotch spreading on his back.
Before the 2017 deployment, Gallagher ordered a hatchet and a hunting knife, both handmade by a SEAL veteran named Andrew Arrabito with whom he had served, text messages show. Hatchets have become an unofficial SEAL symbol, and some operators carry and use them on deployments. Gallagher told Arrabito in a text message shortly after arriving in Iraq, “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”
A fatal stabbing of a teen IS captive, then posing for photos
On the morning of May 4, 2017, Iraqi troops brought in an Islamic State fighter who had been wounded in the leg in battle, SEALs told investigators, and Gallagher responded over the radio with words to the effect of “he’s mine.” The SEALs estimated that the captive was about 15 years old. A video clip shows the youth struggling to speak, but SEAL medics told investigators that his wounds had not appeared life-threatening.
A medic was treating the youth on the ground when Gallagher walked up without a word and stabbed the wounded teenager several times in the neck and once in the chest with his hunting knife, killing him, two SEAL witnesses said.
Iraqi officers who were at the scene told Navy investigators that they did not see the captive die, but disputed the stabbing account, saying it seemed out of character for the chief.
Minutes after the death, Gallagher and his commanding officer, Portier, gathered some nearby SEALs for a re-enlistment ceremony, snapping photos of the platoon standing over the body.
In recent years, photos of re-enlistment ceremonies in unusual circumstances — while scuba diving or skydiving, for instance — have gone viral on social media. The chief’s variation would have reinforced his image as a hard-charging pirate, one SEAL said.
A week later, records show, Gallagher texted a picture of the dead captive to a fellow SEAL in California, saying, “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.”
But his platoon did not see it as a good story, according to the investigation report: The SEALs called a platoon meeting and discussed how to keep the chief away from anyone he could harm.
When senior platoon members confronted Gallagher about the captive’s death, they said, he told them, “Stop worrying about it, they do a lot worse to us.”
The SEALs told investigators they reported the killing to Portier that night and at other times during the deployment, but the lieutenant took no action. They said the lieutenant had trained under Gallagher at BUDS and “idolized” him.
Members of the platoon hoped the chief would be reprimanded when they returned home from Iraq in August 2017, according to the report. It didn’t happen. The report said they spoke repeatedly to the lieutenant’s superior, Breisch, and to Alazzawi and another Team 7 master chief, but were told to “decompress” and “let it go.”
Breisch and Alazzawi disputed that account. They told investigators that they had no knowledge of the alleged war crimes until the March 2018 meeting, and that they had encouraged anyone in the platoon who had witnessed anything criminal to report it to Navy investigators.
The Navy declined to make Breisch or Alazzawi available for interviews, citing the continuing investigation.
Each member of the SEAL team had a duty to report wrongdoing as soon as possible, said Lawrence Brennan, a retired Navy captain and military lawyer who now teaches law at Fordham University. But he added, “The willingness of an institution to turn a blind eye is common.”
“It’s especially true in warfare communities,” he said. “And in the SEALs, you don’t just keep it in the family, you keep it in the immediate family.”
Earlier accusations in Afghanistan
Gallagher had been accused of serious misconduct before. According to the investigation report, Army Special Forces troops serving with him in Afghanistan in 2010 reported that, as a sniper, he had shot through an Afghan girl to hit the man who was carrying her, killing them both. Breisch told investigators in 2018 that the 2010 report had been investigated and no wrongdoing had been found.
In 2014, the report says, Gallagher was detained at a traffic stop, where he allegedly tried to run over a Navy police officer; he was released to his commander, and there is no record of punishment in the report. Soon after, he was promoted to chief.
Among the text messages included in the investigation report are some between Gallagher and another SEAL chief, David Swarts, who is being prosecuted for the beating of detainees in a separate case dating from 2012.
Gallagher told Swarts about his looming investigation and said he felt he could not trust anyone any more. When Swarts responded that he never thought SEALs would report one another, Gallagher replied, “Me either, those days are gone.”