U.S. Navy chief fired over handling of SEAL saga involving Trump

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the Navy’s top civilian on Sunday over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who was convicted of battlefield misconduct in Iraq and later won the support of President Donald Trump.

Esper also determined that the sailor in question, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, should be allowed to retain his Trident pin designating him as a SEAL – effectively ending the Navy’s efforts to carry out a peer review that could have ousted him from the elite force.

Trump, who publicly opposed taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin and had intervened in the case to restore his rank, cheered the moves.

“Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin,” Trump said on Twitter.

The fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer last week suggested a possible split with Trump by telling Reuters that Gallagher should still face a peer review board.

The SEAL was acquitted by a military jury in July of murdering a captured and wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq by stabbing him in the neck, but it convicted him of illegally posing with the detainee’s corpse. That had led to his rank being reduced.

The White House said in November that Trump had restored Gallagher’s rank and had pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Critics had said such actions would undermine military justice and send a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated.

In a letter acknowledging his termination, and seen by Reuters, Spencer took parting shots at Trump and defended the need to preserve “good order and discipline throughout the ranks” — something Navy officials had believed the peer review board would help ensure.

“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote.

“Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, commended Spencer for “standing up to President Trump when he was wrong, something too many in this administration and the Republican Party are scared to do.”

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman offered a different version of events leading up to Spencer’s dismissal, saying Spencer also had a private line of communications with the White House.

“Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Spencer never informed Esper of his private proposal, Hoffman said.

Esper decided to ask for Spencer’s resignation after “losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House,” Hoffman said.

Esper had favored letting the review process “play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties,” Hoffman said. But that now appeared impossible.

“At this point, given the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Trump said he would nominate the U.S. envoy to Norway, Ken Braithwaite, to replace Spencer as Navy Secretary.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, Gallagher indicated that he hoped to retire next Saturday, “without the board” convening to decide whether he could continue to be a SEAL, considered among the most elite of U.S. fighting forces.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Howard Schneider, additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Editing by Peter Cooney, Alistair Bell and Toby Chopra)

Army calls base housing hazards ‘unconscionable,’ details steps to protect families

FILE PHOTO: Homes at Fort Benning undergo lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer, Andrea Januta and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deeply troubled by military housing conditions exposed by Reuters reporting, the U.S. Army’s top leadership vowed Friday to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test tens of thousands of homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting Army base residents from dangerous homes.

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

In an interview, the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said Reuters reports and a chorus of concerns from military families had opened his eyes to the need for urgent overhauls of the Army’s privatized housing system, which accommodates more than 86,000 families.

The secretary’s conclusion: Private real estate firms tasked with managing and maintaining the housing stock have been failing the families they serve, and the Army itself neglected its duties.

“You’ve brought to light a big issue that demands our attention,” Esper said Friday morning at the Pentagon. “It is frankly unconscionable that our soldiers and their families would be living in these types of conditions when we ask so much of them day in and day out.”

The Reuters reporting described rampant mold and pest infestations, childhood lead poisoning, and service families often powerless to challenge private landlords in business with their military employers. Many families said they feared retaliation if they spoke out. The news agency described hazards across Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps base housing communities.

The reports have already spurred a raft of reforms and investigations, and on Wednesday, U.S. senators pledged more action to come during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.

Two days after those hearings, the Army outlined to Reuters its immediate and longer-term plan of reform.

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching "Frosty the Snowman" at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching “Frosty the Snowman” at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

“Our instinct is this is bigger even than what’s been reported, and we want to get to the bottom of it, get to the bottom of it fast,” said General Mark Milley, the Army’s Chief of Staff.

To do so, the Army said it will conduct an extensive survey of its family housing across the country to define the scope of potentially hazardous conditions. Reports in the past, provided by the private industry companies themselves, painted a “false picture,” Milley said.

Army leaders singled out mold infestations as the leading cause of health concerns. On Thursday, the Army ordered its private partner at Maryland’s Fort Meade, Corvias Group, to conduct air quality testing in the nearly 2,800 homes it operates there, and report back within 60 days. The Army expects Corvias to cover the costs, up to $500 per home. The directive came after Army leaders visited Meade, hearing first-hand about pervasive mold and maintenance lapses.

An earlier Reuters report described Meade families suffering from mold-related illnesses, ceilings collapsing in children’s bedrooms, and maintenance neglect leaving families unprotected from hazards.

In addition, the Army said it will begin renegotiating the 50-year housing contracts it has with its seven private housing partners, including Corvias. As Reuters reported, Corvias stands to earn more than $1 billion in fees and other compensation from six of the 13 military bases where it operates. Its fees continued flowing even as maintenance lapses plagued service families.

When unsafe conditions persist, the Army will seek to reduce or withhold fees from its private partners. And, it is examining ways to give service families more avenues to stop rent payments if problems are not quickly addressed, Milley said.

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

The re-negotiation process could begin as early as next week, when Army Secretary Esper will start holding regular meetings with the CEOs of its private housing partners.

Another problem the Army acknowledged: Military commands across the country, many times relying on the word of private partners, allowed housing hazards to fester. Now, Milley said, Army commanders will be tasked with greater oversight.

The Military Housing Privatization Initiative, the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing, began in the late 1990s in an effort to rebuild an aging military housing stock by enlisting private developers and property managers.

“Just because someone said it’s privatized,” Milley said, “doesn’t wash our hands of the responsibility to take care of our soldiers and their families.”

Esper added:  “We are acting now. More to follow.”

(Additional reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)