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Trump Pardons 2 Service Members In War Crimes Cases


Yesterday, President Trump intervened in the cases of three members of the armed services who have been accused of war crimes. The president pardoned two Army officers who had served in Afghanistan, one of whom had been convicted and the other of whom was awaiting trial. And he restored the rank of a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder in Iraq but convicted of posing with a corpse. Those actions were taken despite reported objections from current and former Pentagon officials.

We wanted to talk about this with someone with expertise in the field, so we've called Gary Solis. He served more than two decades with the Marines. He's a former company commander and military judge. He's taught the law of war at a number of institutions, including West Point. And he's currently an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Professor Solis, thank you so much for joining us.

GARY SOLIS: Certainly.

MARTIN: So this just happened last night. But what reaction have you been hearing to this among current and former service members that you're in contact with?

SOLIS: I have talked to a number of former Marines that I know. The overall impression is that the president has subverted military justice by his acts of clemency. He's undermined commanders' authority, and he has misread the significance of the very cases that he's dismissed.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that. Why do you say that?

SOLIS: Well, the cases are very significant because they're war crimes, and war crimes always happen in war zones. And in the future individuals who are charged with war crimes know that they have a backdoor out. Commanders, too, know that their decisions will be looked at by a higher authority not in their direct chain of command who may overturn their decision. And so a president, through his acts of clemency, has subverted military justice. He has made it easier for those who have committed crimes to escape justice in the workings of the military justice system.

MARTIN: What is your greatest concern about the send-up? People have raised a number of concerns about the message it sends to the international community about the - you know, the rule of law.

SOLIS: My most serious concern as a longtime prosecutor of military law - I said it makes cases harder to try. Those individuals who have witnessed them are less likely to speak up. Those commanders who are likely to charge them are going to be less willing to charge them. Judges and jurors are going to be less willing to convict because of the example that has been set by these three cases.

MARTIN: Why did you think these cases came to the attention of the conservative media? I mean, it is no secret that these are cases that have been championed by the conservative media.

SOLIS: I don't think you can name an overall cause. In the Gallagher case, it was because he was a Navy SEAL. Navy SEALs have been romanticized within the American public's mind. And when something comes - goes wrong with SEALs, especially SEAL Team Six, which Gallagher was a member of, then that is automatically news fodder.

MARTIN: Just to be clear, this is special warfare operator Chief Edward Gallagher, Navy SEAL, as you said. He was convicted of posing with a corpse of an enemy combatant in Iraq. He'd been acquitted of murder and other serious charges in July of 2019. The other cases are Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who served six years of a 19-year sentence on two charges of second-degree murder and obstruction after ordering his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed men in Afghanistan, killing two of them. The other pardoned officer is Major Mathew Golsteyn, a West Point graduate. He was awaiting trial for allegedly murdering a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. The trial had not yet occurred. It was scheduled for next year.

SOLIS: In the Lorance case, it is particularly disturbing. I see something that I've never seen in military law before. And that is a public relations campaign aimed at convincing the American public that Lorance had been railroaded that he was an innocent, that he was convicted for doing what he had been trained and ordered to do, which is not the case. Lorance was a platoon commander who ordered his men to commit war crimes, to fire on civilians who had presented no danger to the unit. Some of his soldiers purposely missed. Nine of his soldiers were willing to come into court and testify against him.

And I've read the court martial reports. And he is, in my mind, as guilty as he could be of the offenses of which he was charged and convicted. So it's this public relations campaign, which I think has had a decisive effect in his case, brought it as far as the attentions of the president.

MARTIN: I think there are those who would see this and who would say that we train these young people to fight in our behalf. And when they do, we punish them for doing so. And what do - you say what to that?

SOLIS: I say that that's an incorrect view and a misinformed or uninformed view. And I say that because in the combat zone, in Vietnam, I was the guy doing the teaching. I was the guy who was teaching them how to kill. And we do not teach our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen to kill. We teach them to act, lawfully, in combat. There can be murder in combat. And we have seen it in these three cases. There are laws and regulations which determine when you can lawfully kill somebody.

Now, if the enemy in civilian clothes suddenly throws down on you as you pass by with your patrol, of course, you can open fire and kill civilians. There's no question about that. But you can't do what each of these three individuals have done. Gallagher essentially admitted what he did. Golsteyn has admitted it on camera what he did, and Lorance has had testimony from nine of his own men as to what he did. There's - in my mind, at least - little doubt that they killed but they killed in an unlawful manner. And that is contrary to the Law of Armed Conflict. And every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman knows it.

MARTIN: That is Gary Solis. He's a former Marine company commander, a military judge, longtime professor of the law of war, including at West Point. He's now an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Professor Solis, thank you so much for coming in today.

SOLIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.