Navy SEAL commander arraigned in alleged Iraq war crime cover-up
SAN DIEGO — A general court martial began with the arraignment of a Navy SEAL platoon commander Tuesday for allegedly failing to report war crimes that prosecutors say were committed by another SEAL under his command.
Lt. Jacob X. Portier was in a San Diego military courtroom where he was formally charged with multiple violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including destroying evidence, obstruction of justice, conduct unbecoming, willful dereliction of duty, failure to obey orders, and making false official statements.
Portier did not enter a plea, however. His attorney asked for an extension and a military judge set a hearing for next week.
Jeremiah Sullivan, Portier’s San Diego-based civilian attorney, said after the hearing that his client is innocent and intends to plead not guilty.
“I can be very clear on that,” Sullivan said at an impromptu news conference outside the Naval Base San Diego courthouse. “I think it’ll be clear from the evidence he is absolutely innocent.”
That evidence is the subject of a protective order in effect for both Portier’s case and that of Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward R. Gallagher, the SEAL who, under Portier’s supervision, is charged with multiple war crimes including premeditated murder and shooting civilians in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.
Prosecutors said that some evidence, including video and photos taken of a dead teenage ISIS fighter, were being kept from the public in order to protect American service members currently deployed overseas.
The defense, however, said those protections were interfering with their ability to interview witnesses and review case material with them.
“I can’t even ask a witness ‘who is in this photo? Who is in this video?’” Sullivan said. “We’re going to be litigating that next week.”
Sullivan also called for a State Department review of the evidence in the case, and said it’s possible that parts of the trial might need to be conducted in secret, something he said would protect war fighters overseas.
“We need to do everything to protect them, and I think the state department should intervene and ensure that our national security is preserved,” he said. “The court martial should be public, however… Parts of the investigation should have a classification review. At times they could close the court for portions of testimony — they could close it altogether.”
The prosecution also said it was possible part of the trial could be conducted behind closed doors, but that it was not ideal.
“The Navy has an interest in keeping the court martial public,” said Brian O’Rourke, a spokesman for Navy Region Southwest.
Sullivan said that Portier would testify for the defense in Gallagher’s trial as well, if asked.
“If he’s called he’ll testify truthfully,” Sullivan said. “No crimes were committed. He will happily take the stand and reply truthfully.”
Portier’s conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman charges stem from a reenlistment ceremony he conducted for Gallagher. Prosecutors say this was conducted next to the corpse of the dead fighter, and that Portier then ordered his men to pose in a photo with Gallagher and the corpse.
Sullivan said there was nothing dishonorable about it.
“He never ordered anybody to appear in any photos with a dead ISIS fighter,” Sullivan said. “A reenlistment ceremony was done on the battlefield, and for a Navy SEAL nothing can be more proud and honorable than reenlisting to serve your country on the battlefield.”
Sullivan also said Portier did not attempt to cover-up Gallagher’s alleged crimes.
“He went through the chain of command and made the appropriate report,” Sullivan said. “Whether war crimes actually occurred, that’s a whole other issue that will be litigated in a court of law.”
Portier is expected back in court Jan. 31, when a Navy judge, Capt. Jonathan Stephens, is expected to rule on the defense motion and set a date for trial.
Gallagher will be in court again Friday for a motion hearing. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 19.