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Trump Issues War Crimes Pardons Despite Pentagon Opposition

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at Yokota Air Base, November 5, 2017. The president signed an executive order on May 9, 2018 to enable military spouses to find work more easily in the private and federal sectors.
President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to troops at Yokota Air Base, Sunday, November 5, 2017, in Tokyo, Japan. First Lady Melania Trump attends. (Photo: White House, Shealah Craighead)

“The grand American tradition of immunizing its war criminals – while preaching morality to the world – continues with these vile pardons by Trump.”

President Trump issued pardons in three cases involving war crimes accusations on Friday, overriding the military justice system and opposition from some Pentagon officials in a move critics argue will embolden bad actors within the military to ignore the rules of engagement and harm civilians abroad. As the Washington Post first reported:

“The service members were notified by Trump over the phone late Friday afternoon, according to lawyers for Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn and former Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, the SEAL. Golsteyn faced a murder trial scheduled for next year, while Gallagher recently was acquitted of murder and convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq.

The third service member, former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, was expected to be released Friday night from prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 and sentenced to 19 years for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan.”

Trump issued full pardons for Golsteyn and Lorance and reversed a disciplinary action for Gallagher, who was previously demoted a rank for posing with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.

“Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long,” Trump said in May, when he spoke about considering the pardons. “You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight sometimes they get really treated very unfairly.”

Advocates of the three accused service members view their cases as overly punitive and inconsiderate of the hardships inherent in wartime decisions. The circumstances of the cases vary widely, with Gallagher’s case marred by alleged prosecutorial misconduct and inconsistencies, to Lorance’s own team testifying against him for ordering the killing of Afghan villagers who posed no known threat.

“Gallagher’s legal team had urged the four-star to show mercy for a highly decorated SEAL whose case was plagued by allegations of corruption inside the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” reports Military Times. Gallagher was acquitted of murder after another SEAL who was granted immunity to testify against him confessed in court that he was the one who murdered the detainee Gallagher was accused of killing, not Gallagher.

Mr. Lorance, on the other hand, “was a rookie Army lieutenant who had been in command of a platoon in Afghanistan for two days in July 2012 when he ordered his troops to fire on unarmed villagers who posed no threat, killing two men,” as per the New York Times. “He then called in false reports over the radio to cover up what had happened. He was immediately turned in by his own men.”

Critics argue that Trump’s override of the military justice system sends a signal that American troops can ignore the rules of engagement without consequence.

“This is a shameful use of presidential powers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union. “It sends a clear message of disrespect for the law, morality, the military justice system, and those in the military who abide by the laws of war.

Other critics view Trump’s pardons as merely the latest episode of unchecked American imperialism.

“A President who reveres Mohammed bin Salman is obviously going to act to protect his own monsters, murderers and psychopaths,” tweeted journalist Glenn Greenwald. “The grand American tradition of immunizing its war criminals – while preaching morality to the world – continues with these vile pardons by Trump.”

As The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain wrote last month, one of the most overlooked aspects of the Trump era has been the increase in civilian deaths in wars abroad. Hussain notes that while the Pentagon has always downplayed civilian deaths in foreign conflicts, while independent organizations have found numbers vastly higher, the Trump administration has overseen a uniquely sharp uptake in non-combatant casualties. According to the Watchdog group Airwars, civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria increased more than 200 percent between 2016 and 2017.

The U.S. government “doesn’t even record Afghan civilian casualties as if they don’t even happen,” tweeted journalist Akmal Dawi on Friday.

Before Friday’s pardons, Trump had loosened rules of engagement, pardoned war crimes and punished prosecutors investigating them. As the Washington Post reported:

“The action follows Trump pardoning another veteran, former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, in May in the 2008 murder of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.

Behenna was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years after stripping a detainee naked, interrogating him without authorization and shooting him twice. Behenna said he was acting in self-defense and that the detainee made a move for the officer’s pistol.”

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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