Journalist: Eddie Gallagher Case Reveals A 'War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. In 2018, a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL was arrested and accused of some shocking crimes. Investigators said while Eddie Gallagher was leading a platoon of these elite commandos in the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS, he stabbed a defenseless prisoner to death. The accusations came from SEALs in Gallagher's own platoon, who said he was also known for taking shots at civilians from his sniper's nest, killing at least two.
If you recall Gallagher's name, it might be because his cause was championed by President Trump and covered extensively on Fox News programs. My guest at The New York Times, Dave Philipps, covered Gallagher's trial and interviewed many of the Navy SEALs who leveled the accusations against Gallagher. Philipps also acquired much of the evidence in the case, including thousands of documents, helmet cam images, photos, text messages and video recordings of the interviews that the Navy SEALs gave to Navy investigators.
Philipps' new book is a gripping account of the experiences of Gallagher's unit in Iraq, as well as the investigation and trial of Gallagher and the aftermath of the verdict. Dave Philipps is a national correspondent for The New York Times who writes about the military and veterans from the ground up. He's the author of two previous books and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. His new book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALS." I should note that Eddie Gallagher has filed a lawsuit against Dave Philipps and two former secretaries of the Navy, accusing the officials of illegally leaking information and Philipps of defaming him in the articles. That suit is ongoing.
Well, Dave Philipps, welcome to FRESH AIR. The guy at the center of this story, Eddie Gallagher, was a leader of a platoon in - of the Navy SEALs. Tell us a little bit about him, his background and his combat record.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Eddie Gallagher had been in the SEALs for years before this court martial case. He joined in 1999 as a Navy corpsman, which is a medic, and served in a Marine battalion before he joined the SEALs. In the SEALs, he did a number of deployments to Afghanistan, as well as other Middle Eastern countries. And by 2017, when everything happened, he was a chief, put in charge of a platoon of about 20 other commandos. And his job was to lead these guys into the fight in Mosul, which was going to be probably the biggest battle of the whole campaign against ISIS. And he had really carved out a reputation as a badass, you know, a guy who was combat tested and hardened, a guy who had medals for valor, a guy who was well-liked and considered a true SEAL.
DAVIES: There was a story that he liked to tell recruits about his experiences as a sniper and about the tough calls that you have to confront in combat. You want to share that with us?
PHILIPPS: Yeah, this is an interesting story, and I've had a hard time knowing what to make of it, including whether it's even true. But it was a story he told his students that he trained in SEALs basic training. And many of the SEALs who served with him and later turned him in were in that training. He was one of their first exposures to the SEALs. And he told this story about when he was a sniper in Afghanistan. And they knew they wanted to get a Taliban high-value target, a man they considered a dangerous guy. But they believed that this man knew that he was being watched by the Americans because every time he left his compound and went outdoors, he would carry a child with him. And so the snipers watching from a distance couldn't take a shot.
Essentially, the way Eddie would tell it to his students was that the Taliban was using the Americans' own sense of decency as a weapon. And so he was protected. And so for days, they watched this man. And each time, he would go in and out of his house with a child. And eventually, Eddie just took the shot. And whether he intended to or not, the shot went through the child and into the man and killed them both. And he told this story to recruits to let them know that, you know, war is real, and war is dark. And you are going to have to make choices that maybe you don't know you're prepared for. And he was, you know, by all accounts, a very hard dude who took this job seriously and never shied away from those choices.
DAVIES: When he gets this assignment to become chief of Alpha Platoon of SEAL Team 7. I believe - if I have this right - they would do a year of training and then deploy - right? - the extensive training on all kinds of weapons. And part of it involved getting on this big practice area where there would be rooms with dummies and maybe real people. You can explain this. But the idea was to get in, work as a team and make quick decisions, distinguishing combatants from noncombatants and secure the room with the minimum loss of life. It was challenging. What was disturbing about Eddie Gallagher's performance in these drills?
PHILIPPS: This is a practice area that all of the SEALs call the Kill House. Picture a warehouse like building the size of a Walmart at least, made up of a maze of different hallways and rooms that you can watch from above on a catwalk. This is the training area where SEALs would hone all of their quick reaction responses for going after terrorists, rescuing hostages and doing it in a way where they wouldn't end up accidentally killing civilians who are in the room or, just as big of a risk, their battle buddies who may be just a few feet away. And so they would run through drills again and again, having to do everything perfect, you know, down to where your middle finger was on the rifle when you went through the second door. And they would use dummies sometimes, live actors sometimes.
And when they got to the end of training, they were using live ammunition, all operating together in this area. So it's very high risk, and it's very real to them. And mistakes have a huge cost. And so even if you're making mistakes before live rounds are being used, if the instructors see you doing what you shouldn't be doing, it should be a very big red flag.
Well, this is one of the first areas where Gallagher's men started seeing some red flags, because when Gallagher would go through the training and the scenarios, there were a number of instances where he shot civilians and shot friendly soldiers in practice. And more alarming, a lot of the instructors knew him or knew him by reputation and didn't do anything to sanction him. They just sort of viewed it as, hey, who am I to tell a guy like Eddie Gallagher, kind of a legend in the teams, how to do things right?
DAVIES: So when it's time to deploy and go over to Mosul, Eddie Gallagher went over first along with his chief petty officer, a guy named Craig Miller. And when the other members of the SEAL team were starting to come over, Miller alerts two of his senior snipers and says, when you guys get here, we got to have a private conversation about Eddie. They get to Iraq. What does Miller tell them?
PHILIPPS: I should say that Craig Miller is probably kind of the opposite type of personality from Eddie Gallagher. Eddie was very much a rogue and a pirate and enjoyed that reputation, a man who was loose with the rules, a man who did fixes behind closed doors to make things happen. And the platoon kind of liked that because it was working for them. It had gotten them the deployment that they wanted.
And Craig Miller was really a guy who followed the rules. He was the son of a Navy SEAL who then became a cop in Texas. He was an amazing operator, probably the best close quarter shooter in the whole team, but really believed that the rules were there for a reason and you operated within them. And when he got to Iraq to take a look around with Eddie before the rest of the platoon arrived, Eddie essentially said, hey, you know what? We don't have to worry about the rules. The rules say that to not get into combat. We need to stay a kilometer behind the front lines and just advise the Iraqis. The Iraqis will be the ones who do this fight. But we're going to get right up in there, and we are just - won't tell anybody, and we'll get lots of action.
And I think Craig Miller was OK with this, but when he tried to ask Eddie Gallagher - OK, well, what are the tactics going to be? What is - what do we hope to achieve? How are we going to keep people safe? His leader didn't have any answers. It was just, like, go up there and get some, and we'll worry about it later. And for the second-in-command, this was a real concern. He had a wife who was pregnant. He had friends he had served with for years that - he was worried about their safety. And he wanted to give everyone a heads-up that, hey, all of a sudden, Eddie has changed and seems like all he wants is combat.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times. His new book about the Eddie Gallagher case is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Dave Philipps. He has a new book about the case against U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of murdering a captive in the war in Iraq. The book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs."
When the platoon gathers and Eddie Gallagher takes them out in Iraq, I mean, you write about how the Navy SEALs were functioning among a lot of other troops. There were Iraqi troops, there were U.S. Marines, and there were helicopters and planes in the air delivering ordnance from above. And in order to keep people safe, every SEAL had a tracker on them which could - would show on a display in the Central Command where everybody was so people wouldn't get hurt by friendly fire. The first time they went out on a mission, Eddie did some things that surprised the platoon members. Tell us about that.
PHILIPPS: Yeah, he basically said, we're going to turn off our trackers. And he did it almost as a favor to his men, or at least I think that's what he would have said, because it allowed them to get up close to the fighting and sidestep the rules that had been imposed on them. But in the context of Mosul, it was an extremely risky move. Mosul in 2017 was the biggest combat operation since the invasion of Iraq. Picture a city of about a million people that had been taken over by ISIS and had been surrounded by coalition troops - mostly Iraqi ground troops but also American and NATO air forces. It was surrounded, and no ISIS was going to get out. The coalition troops were just going to slowly tighten the noose and eradicate every single enemy fighter in there.
And so if you are on the ground, you not only have to deal with the fact that there's American Marines and American Army and Iraqi Army; there's also British, various European troops, all speaking different languages, sometimes using different communication devices. And it's extremely easy to get shot or have a bomb dropped on you if someone doesn't know where you are. And so there was just enormous risk in doing this.
But I think the SEALs, who were much younger than Eddie Gallagher - most of them were in their 20s, the men he was leading - I think they were excited about this. I mean, you don't join the SEALs to avoid risk. You would join to, you know, fight the enemy, and they saw the fight against ISIS as a really righteous fight. So when he said turn off your trackers, everyone in the platoon was down with that. And I think it was only in hindsight that they realized that this was sort of the start of a pattern of disregarding the rules, of doing things that could, you know, cause trouble. And this one seemed innocent, but it quickly got dark from there.
DAVIES: Well, again, I think - his chief - the chief petty officer, Craig Miller, had a concern about it. You know, you - we don't want to get a bomb dropped on us. When they go out onto the field, Eddie Gallagher kind of appoints himself as a sniper to support Iraqi troops, which surprised a lot of the SEAL team members because he's their leader, and he hadn't really worked as a sniper for a long time. He got in the habit of doing this, and some of the SEAL team members became convinced that he was shooting at civilians. This is tricky business. He was acquitted of murder at his trial, so we want to be careful about how you know this, but you describe at least two cases in which he seems to shoot and kill civilians.
PHILIPPS: It kind of dumbfounded the platoon that Eddie Gallagher would be behind a sniper rifle in the first place. He was the chief of the platoon, the boss, you know, or a better analogy may be the coach of the team. And to leave your guys below in the truck while you climb up to a building and get behind a sniper rifle is a little bit like the coach leaving the players on the bench and going in to dunk. So they - it wasn't supposed to happen. They were confused about why it was happening. And at first, they just viewed it as Eddie being selfish. You know, Eddie wants to get all the action for himself, even though it's - his role is to sit back and coordinate.
And then it grew from there in really strange ways. So Eddie might be up in a sniper hide in a building, overlooking all of Mosul, and there might be a couple other snipers up there. And Eddie might start firing and then claim to the other snipers that he had shot two ISIS guys, and the other snipers would swing their scopes over and not see anything. And day after day, this sort of stuff happened. Eddie would come down at the end of the day and boast about the people that he had killed, and then the other snipers would quietly say to the other guys, like, look; I didn't see anything. He was shooting, all right, but, like, I think he's making it up.
And so at first in the deployment, there was just sort of this overarching feeling in the platoon that, like, man, our boss sucks. You know, not only is he taking jobs that don't belong to him, but he's just making up stories to, you know, self-aggrandize.
DAVIES: Right, and actually, not commanding the platoon.
PHILIPPS: Right, right. The - he left that to his second-in-command. You take care of things while I go up and shoot, essentially. And it was a mix of them grumbling about how he wasn't really doing his job and laughing about the ridiculous stories he was returning with every day. And they all just assumed that he was shooting at nothing. But then one by one, they started seeing that he was actually shooting at people and people that the snipers believed didn't fit the rules of engagement at all. They weren't ISIS. They weren't combatants. They were civilians.
DAVIES: So let's talk about these two examples. One of them involved an elderly man. What do we know about this?
PHILIPPS: This is a report that came from the most senior sniper in the platoon, a guy named Dylan Dille, and probably the most proficient sniper in the entire Team 7. He was watching through his scope a man standing by a corner in downtown old Mosul, a very crowded area of narrow streets and alleyways. And he was watching him because he was trying to decide whether he should shoot a warning shot or not. By this point, he had seen Eddie start to take shots at civilians and become really concerned about it. He'd seen him shoot at women going down to the water, or at least this is what he reported to Navy authorities - groups of women and children out along the riverbank.
And so what he and other snipers did in response is they started taking warning shots, warning shots that would scare civilians away from places where Eddie could get a shot at them before Eddie had a chance. And so on this morning, it was Father's Day 2017. He saw this old man standing on a corner talking to another old man and thought, oh, no, I've got to decide whether this guy's ISIS or not and what I should do before Eddie gets a chance. And he knew that he might only have seconds to make this decision. So he started running through his checklist, looking for weapons, looking for other signs of whether this guy was a combatant. And before he finished his mental checklist, he heard a shot, he said, from Eddie's position. And he saw a splotch of blood spreading on the man's back. This man stumbled to the ground, tried to get up, stumbled again and, eventually, crawled behind a corner.
Now, this was, you know, obviously a really shaking thing for Dylan Dille because he had just seen his chief, at least he believed, shoot someone who didn't deserve to be shot. But it also was really unsettling because then he had to think, OK, we've been kind of laughing about Eddie and all his stories of the people that he shot for weeks and weeks, and what if all those stories are true? You know, how many people has he shot? And that realization kind of spreads slowly throughout the platoon, as other people saw this type of stuff.
DAVIES: And there was another case involving a school-aged girl wearing a brightly colored hijab. You want to tell us about that one?
PHILIPPS: Right. And this one comes from someone who was really one of Eddie's disciples, a sniper named Josh Vriens, who considered himself the most aggressive person in the platoon. He saw his job as to be, basically, a pit bull. And Eddie could keep the leash on him, but, you know, his job was to be aggressive and lethal. He hated ICIS. He wanted to do as much damage as he could. And one morning he was scanning old Mosul for targets and heard a shot and swung his scope down over to a blown-out bridge along the river. And he asked his chief, Eddie Gallagher, what are you shooting at? And he said, there's some under the bridge. And so he looked, and he saw a group of four school-aged girls making their way along the river. And he was confused and sort of swung his scope back and forth, looking for the actual targets and focused back on the girls because he didn't see anything.
And again, he - just like Dylan Dille, he heard a shot that he thought came from - well, actually, he didn't know where it came from. But he saw this girl get shot in the stomach, a girl with a gray dress and a flowered hijab, and go down. And then her friends sort of drag her behind a dirt berm, where they disappeared. And at first, he thought that this was such a cowardice, brutal act that it must have been ISIS that had shot this girl. And it was only later in the day he told Navy investigators that another SEAL who had been in Eddie's position said, no, you know, it was Eddie that shot that girl. And he was shocked because he loved Eddie. He had seen Eddie as, you know, his path to success as a SEAL and a mentor. And all of a sudden, he saw him as worse than ISIS.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "TROCANDO EM MIUDOS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Dave Philipps. He covers the military and veterans, and his new book is about the case against U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher was accused of war crimes including the murder of a defenseless prisoner while leading a platoon of SEALs in the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS in 2017. The book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs."
So let's talk about the incident which is best known. And this involves a prisoner that came into the company of Alpha Platoon. I guess there had been a house with ISIS fighters that had been destroyed by a Hellfire missile. And the Iraqi troops say that they have captured a wounded ISIS fighter. Eddie Gallagher was actually not kind of right there at the moment. Where was he, and what did he do when he heard this over the radio?
PHILIPPS: At the time, Eddie Gallagher was up as close to the front lines as he could be which is where he usually liked to be. He was in a armored vehicle with a heavy machine gun on top, sort of providing flanking fire for this Iraqi operation. But when he heard that there was an ISIS fighter who was being brought back to this blown-out government compound that they were using as a base, he immediately got on the radio and, according to the witnesses, said, no one touch him. He's mine. And he drove a kilometer or two back to this area.
DAVIES: So he gets there. Who was this fighter? I mean, what did he look like, the prisoner?
PHILIPPS: There's actually helmet cam video of the fighter being brought in. He's splayed across the hood of a Humvee that's riddled with bullet holes. And what the SEALs immediately noticed was how young he was. This is the first fighter that they had ever seen up close. And they were all kind of eager to get a look at what ISIS was. And when they walked up to him, they realized that he was a scrawny teenager. He's covered in dust from a bomb blast likely. He's got a wound in his leg that's been bandaged, but there's a blossom of red spreading across the bandage. And he's vaguely coherent, but you can tell he's in bad shape.
When the Iraqis pull him down off of the hood of the Humvee, he can barely lift his head to look around. And they lay him out on the ground. And that's when Eddie Gallagher shows up. And there's video that shows him saying to the Iraqi officer in charge, is this guy ISIS? And then he says, I got him. And he immediately starts pulling up in a medical bag and providing medical care.
DAVIES: Which was odd because although he had been trained and worked as a medic earlier in his career, it wasn't his job on this platoon. And in fact, they had medics who were there and actually working on this young man. So what did Eddie Gallagher do? What did they see him do?
PHILIPPS: The platoon was really confused because Eddie had never opened a medical bag that they had seen during the whole deployment. He didn't particularly relish that part of the job. And yet, here he was working on a captive. And so they were confused about why he was doing it and what he planned to do with this captive afterwards. Were they going to treat him and then, you know, take custody of him and take him to a U.S. jail? Were they going to turn him over to the Iraqis? None of the SEALs in the platoon had ever gone through a scenario where they knew what to do with this.
So they watched Eddie start to perform emergency medicine on this young captive. He put an emergency airway into the captive by cutting a hole essentially in the front of his throat and inserting a tube. And at that point, one of the actual medics noticed that Eddie had kind of messed up the procedure, and he instinctively knelt down and helped. And so eventually, there were two other medics and one other SEAL all helping to provide medical treatment to this guy even though they had no idea what they were going to do with them once they were done.
DAVIES: And then there's the moment where Eddie does the thing that shocks everyone. What happened?
PHILIPPS: Once they had the captive all stabilized and, you know, would have transported him to a hospital if that had been the plan, what witnesses say - and there are three who saw this - they say that he wordlessly pulled out a custom hunting knife that he always had on the back of his belt and stabbed the prisoner multiple times in the base of the neck and then, without really saying much more, got up and just walked away.
DAVIES: The prisoner bled profusely and died. What happened then?
PHILIPPS: After the prisoner had died, they were still at this compound for several hours waiting for other operations to end so that they could leave. And during that time, Eddie Gallagher and the lieutenant in charge of the platoon, a guy named Jake Portier, gathered up as many guys as they could find and took a group photo with Eddie Gallagher and the dead body. And in those photos, Eddie has his hunting knife in one hand and is gripping the hair of the corpse in the other and has sort of a determined look with his whole platoon, or many of them, arranged all around him.
DAVIES: Yeah, it's a pretty weird scene. And a lot of the Alpha Platoon members weren't exactly happy about this, right? But they did it anyway.
PHILIPPS: There are some that refused to get in the photos. There are some that just quietly disappeared when they realized what was going on 'cause they wanted no part of it. There are some that were happy to get in the photo. They knew that an ISIS fighter had died. They may not have known how. They might have believed it was from a legitimate airstrike. And they wanted to celebrate what one of the members of the platoon called the fruits of their labor. And there were other guys that were in the photo but felt they couldn't say anything or refuse because they had witnessed a murder, and they were still trying to process what had happened and what they were going to do with it. But meanwhile, the best thing to do was just quietly go along and pretend that everything was fine.
DAVIES: This wasn't OK with members of Alpha Platoon. What kinds of conversations did they have with each other and with Eddie Gallagher later?
PHILIPPS: Right away, the second-of-command, Craig Miller, he realized this was against everything that the SEALs believed and everything that they served. You know, to just murder a prisoner of war, he thought was so wrong that I think he was just shocked, bereft. He went - almost immediately, he told investigators to tell the officer in command. The officer in command didn't do anything. And so Craig Miller realized he had to address the rest of the guys, tell them what happened and say it was wrong and tell them that it wouldn't happen again.
But when he was doing this the day of the murder, the - Eddie Gallagher actually walked in, walked in on their meeting. And, you know, it's - it was - all of a sudden, a hush fell on the room. And they all started to awkwardly leave because no one wanted to confront him. But eventually, the senior guys, Craig Miller and others, did confront him and say, hey, Eddie, like, this was wrong. You can't be doing this. We're not OK with it. And Eddie Gallagher acknowledged it, at least according to the witnesses, and apologized. But he apologized in an odd way that suggested that they were being too sensitive, that this is what war was. And he was sorry that he had offended them. And next time, he would do it when they weren't around.
DAVIES: We need to take another break. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Dave Philipps. He covers the military and veterans. And his new book is about the case against U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of murdering a prisoner while he was in Iraq. The book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALS."
So Alpha Platoon finishes its tour in Iraq, comes back to a base in California, I guess the fall of 2017. Do - are all the guys pretty united in wanting to report Eddie Gallagher for this crime?
PHILIPPS: That's my understanding, and I've talked to a lot of members of the platoon. There was just an idea that Eddie was, you know, not just a murderer, but also just in terms of the organization, you know, really a cancer. If Eddie comes back successful and gets awarded for this great deployment and then moves up in the organization, he will just teach his ways and his views to other people. And so they really felt, first and foremost, that he needed to be sidelined. He couldn't move up in the SEALs. But at the same time, the SEALs is, you know, it's a pretty covert, classified group of people. They didn't want to take this public. They didn't want to go to Navy authorities. They were hoping that it could be dealt with quietly. Maybe he can just quietly get discharged from the SEALs, and the SEALs will be protected, but nobody will know.
DAVIES: So they try to get commanders to launch an official investigation. They were reluctant. They knew how controversial this would be. How did the SEALs finally - in the platoon finally force the issue and start an investigation?
PHILIPPS: I think the problem initially was not just that SEALs knew that it would be controversial, but the chain of command that they kept working their way up were all friends with Eddie. And so these were guys who were deployed with him, but they repeatedly refused to act even when pressed. And so these SEALs that had tried to deal with things quietly for basically a year eventually felt there was no choice but to essentially break the glass and pull the emergency cord by calling the Navy Criminal Investigative Service.
DAVIES: Right. So the Navy Criminal Investigative Service starts interviewing the SEALs, and they see that there is a case here. And so the Investigative Service actually arrests Eddie Gallagher and raids his house. What kind of material did they get in the raid?
PHILIPPS: They search his house. And they find a couple of things that become really key to the prosecution. Perhaps the most important one is in a back drawer of essentially the laundry room, they find a phone that he had taken to Iraq. And on that phone, they find the photos of the dead captive and the rest of the platoon. This is important because Eddie Gallagher has told the rest of the platoon, if you have photos of this day, delete them. And according to witnesses, all of them had. But Eddie Gallagher had not. And so the authorities find these photos that, quite frankly, they didn't even know existed on this phone. And not only that, they find text message traffic, where a few days after the killing, Eddie Gallagher texts the photo of himself with the dead captive with the knife to one of his fellow SEALs saying, good story behind this. I got him with my hunting knife. And they really see that as sort of a red-handed confession.
DAVIES: You know, this was a case where a lot of the typical elements of a murder investigation weren't there. I mean, there was no medical examiner's report on the body. They didn't have the body. The the SEALs left it in the hands of the Iraqis. There was no crime scene they could look at. It was on the other side of the world. But based on the accounts of the SEALs and the evidence collected, they bring a case. What exactly was added to Gallagher charged with?
PHILIPPS: Eventually, he was charged with murder, murder of this prisoner, attempted murder of the civilians that other SEALs said they saw him shoot, and also of some very military specific crimes, conduct unbecoming and damaging the good order and discipline, things that basically were punishing him for being a bad leader, being a bad soldier, causing discredit to the Navy. And so he was, by the end of it, looking at, you know, potentially life in prison.
DAVIES: The story of the trial was fascinating. And we can't go through it all here, but people can read it in the book. As you tell the story, some senior commanders in the Navy become concerned that there may be witness tampering going on. And the prosecution were kind of outgunned by the defense lawyers. Gallagher's family had gone on television and raised a lot of money. And they could hire some some very high-priced defense attorneys. All that said, I mean, when the trial happened, two testified that they personally saw Gallagher stab this defenseless prisoner. A critical witness was a medic named Corey Scott, who was right there when it happened. And he did take the stand, but the story he told on the stand was very different from what he had told Navy investigators. What was his original story? What had he told the Navy investigators happened?
PHILIPPS: He told investigators that when the captive came in, he had been right there. He had knelt down across from Eddie Gallagher and was providing medical care with him to this captive - that the captive was, you know, not in great shape, but medically stable, that he wasn't going to die from the wounds that he received on the battlefield - and that Eddie Gallagher, for no reason, stabbed the prisoner in the neck multiple times and then got up and left. He gave that account to prosecutors and to criminal investigators multiple times without ever adding anything to it, even though they, you know, grilled him.
And then once on the stand, Corey Scott did something very different. He got up, and he provided the same story - that he'd been right next to the captive, that he'd been kneeling there and watched his chief stab the prisoner. But then he said he wasn't sure anymore how many times he stabbed the prisoner. Maybe it was just once. And he wasn't sure if he saw any blood. And then the most consequential change in his story was that when Eddie left, the kid remained stable. The captive was not going to die from the wound he received from Eddie. And in fact, it was Corey Scott who killed him by plugging his breathing tube and suffocating him.
DAVIES: What was his motive, according to his testimony, for killing him then?
PHILIPPS: Well, this was really surprising. His motive, he said, was that he was killing him essentially for mercy, that he knew that they would turn over this captive to the Iraqi soldiers, and the Iraqis would torture and possibly rape him, and the kid would suffer. So in order to avoid that suffering, he just wanted to suffocate him. And now this is a really important legal distinction because if Corey Scott had said, look - this kid had been stabbed; he was going to die, and so I just put him out of his misery more quickly - Eddie Gallagher would have still been on the hook for murder. But if the medic testifies, no, this guy wasn't going to die - Eddie Gallagher did not give him a fatal wound; I killed him for a completely independent reason, that is - that gets Eddie off the hook. The worst Eddie is looking at in charges, then, is assault.
DAVIES: So how long did the jury, who was - who, by the way, you note, were composed mostly of combat veterans themselves - it's a military trial. How long did the jury deliberate, and what did they decide?
PHILIPPS: Yeah. So this jury was all military, of course, because it's a court-martial. But more striking than that, it was all men, and nearly all of them had ground combat experience. So it was a little bit like having a bunch of cops on a jury trying to decide the fate of a cop who is accused of an illegal killing. They certainly share a worldview, to a certain extent, with Eddie Gallagher. They did not take very long at all. This was a two-week trial. They essentially deliberated for one full day and then came back first thing in the morning and had a cup of coffee and gave their verdict. And the verdict was essentially that Eddie Gallagher was found not guilty of all of the serious charges - murder, attempted murder. And the only thing that he was convicted of was small charges that were related to taking a picture with a dead body.
DAVIES: Eddie Gallagher never testified under oath about what happened in Mosul. I mean, that's a right, of course, every criminal defendant has. He didn't have to take the stand. Were you able to interview him?
PHILIPPS: No. I tried, and he refused. He, as you mentioned at the onset, is suing me and doesn't like me very much, so I'm not surprised.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." We'll continue our conversation right after this. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Dave Philipps. He covers the military and veterans. His new book is about the case against U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of killing a prisoner in Iraq. The book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs."
You write about a Navy SEAL commander named Matthew Rosenbloom. He's a captain. If I have this right, I think he sort of basically commanded all of the SEALs on the West Coast. And as the case unfolded, he was furious about Eddie Gallagher's conduct and particularly the way he felt the public was being misled about what had happened. What was at stake to Matt Rosenbloom? Why was he so passionate about wanting to set the record straight?
PHILIPPS: I feel that Matt Rosenbloom and probably a lot of people in the SEAL leadership felt that a case like Eddie's really needed to play out without interference, that people had to understand what he was accused of doing and justice had to take place - because these guys had seen what they call ethical drift in the teams. They had seen the growing influence of this belief that the laws of war are a hindrance, that they are not important to true Navy SEALs. And they really felt that this trial could be a corrective. And when Chief Gallagher's family kept going on conservative media and saying things that were just not true, not even based loosely in fact without any challenge, it was extremely frustrating because the Navy was unable to respond at all.
In the military legal system, if a commander is seen to take any side, even slightly, in a court-martial trial, it could negate the whole court-martial because of something called unlawful command influence. And so Matt Rosenbloom and the entire Navy had to keep their mouths shut the entire time while Eddie Gallagher's family was going on Fox constantly.
DAVIES: You know, there's a question that hangs over this story. I mean, if Eddie Gallagher got away with terrible crimes and emerged to many Americans as a hero, what does that do to the Navy SEALs, to the American military in general? What's the message about the standards of conduct will really be regardless of what the rules say? Can you just share your assessment of that?
PHILIPPS: I think that within the military, that was the great tragedy that they saw in this trial. It wasn't so much who the victims were because the victims never even had names in this trial. It was, how will this affect the culture? How can - you know, if someone decides to be a rogue operator and go out and kill people beyond the rules and then essentially go to the president, make the entire issue political and get off and get around the rules that way, that is so damaging to the good order and discipline of the ranks because it lets everyone else who's serving know that they might be able to do the same thing.
DAVIES: There's another important part of the story. You know, the captive who Eddie Gallagher was accused of killing was unidentified at trial. Nobody knew what happened to the body. But you - or the paper figured this out. Right? Tell us about him.
PHILIPPS: Yeah. You know, what was striking about this case is it's not only did they never find out who the captive was or what his name was, they never even acknowledged in the Navy that he had a name. In the case, he was never referred to as John Doe or anything else. He was just the terrorist, the fighter, the captive, the victim. And that really sort of, I thought when I was watching it, denied a humanity to him that made it easier for the jury to find Eddie Gallagher not guilty because there was no consequence. There was no mother and father who are sitting in the courtroom.
The New York Times - we've had staff on the ground in Iraq for almost 20 years, more than that. And so they thought it was very possible to find this guy, which the Navy did not. And we have stringers who are from Mosul. And so with a little bit of footwork, they were able to go to the neighborhood where this fighter was from and find his parents. And so we were able to interview them and finally put a name to him. And his name, by the way, is Moataz Mohamed Abdullah. His big passion, when he was growing up, was soccer. And he would go down to the soccer field almost every day and play with his local team. And his father was really proud of him. He was the second-oldest son, but his father thought that he would probably take over the family business selling used cars because he was just gregarious and smart and good with numbers.
What his father realized, to his horror, was that down at the soccer field, ISIS fighters were hanging out, and they were grooming and recruiting some of the young players to become fighters. At the time, the city was occupied by ISIS and surrounded by Iraqis' army, and it was obvious that a giant battle was coming. And so ISIS needed these young fighters to take up arms. And you know, through, you know, daily interactions, through things like giving jerseys and soccer balls and shoes to these young people, they befriended them and brought them over until Moataz really - he went and joined ISIS. His father tried to stop him. He literally, at one point, chained him up in their house to keep him from going out into the streets again. But Moataz broke the chain and disappeared, and his father never saw him again.
DAVIES: Well, Dave Philipps, thank you so much for speaking with us.
PHILIPPS: It's my pleasure.
DAVIES: Dave Philipps is a national correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." On tomorrow's show, we speak with Dr. Anna Lembke, medical director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Clinic. She says we live in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli - drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, texting and tweeting - making us vulnerable to overconsumption and addiction. Her new book is "Dopamine Nation." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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