Navy SEAL Whose Testimony Roiled War-Crimes Trial May Face Perjury Charge

When a Navy SEAL witness testified in a war-crimes trial last week that he, and not the defendant, had killed a captive ISIS fighter, the courtroom was stunned. Now the witness may face court-martial himself, on a charge of perjury.

The Navy notified the witness, Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, on Tuesday that it was considering charging him with lying under oath in the trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, according to an email sent to the witness’s lawyer.

The email says that Special Operator Scott “testified directly contrary to previous official statements — thus exposing him to prosecution.”

A Navy official with knowledge of the case confirmed that the email was authentic and that the military was considering charging Special Operator Scott. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The email was addressed to Brian Ferguson, a civilian lawyer representing Special Operator Scott. Mr. Ferguson also confirmed the authenticity and nature of the email, but declined to comment further.

The email was sent by Capt. Don King, a Navy lawyer serving as the legal adviser to the senior commander who convened the war crimes court-martial.

If convicted of perjury, Special Operator Scott, a SEAL medic, could face up to five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.

Special Operator Scott testified Thursday that he was near Mosul, Iraq, in 2017 with his platoon leader, Chief Gallagher, when a wounded teenage Islamic State fighter was brought to them by Iraqi troops. Chief Gallagher helped give the captive first aid, including sedative drugs and an emergency breathing tube in his throat, Special Operator Scott testified. But then, he said, the chief pulled out a custom hunting knife and, without explanation, stabbed the sedated captive between the neck and collar bone.

One of the charges against Chief Gallagher in the war-crimes trial is premeditated murder of the captive. The chief has pleaded not guilty, and denies all the charges against him.

On the witness stand, Special Operator Scott minimized the stabbing, saying the chief had stabbed the captive only once, that there was no blood coming from the wound afterward and that the stab wound was not life-threatening. He testified that after the stabbing, the captive was still in stable condition, but that he then placed his thumb over the captive’s breathing tube, asphyxiating him.

A Navy prosecutor immediately leapt from his chair in the courtroom and angrily accused Special Operator Scott of lying, saying that on one crucial point after another, his testimony contradicted what he had told Navy criminal investigators and lawyers in at least five interviews.

Special Operator Scott, who made eye contact with Chief Gallagher and with Timothy Parlatore, the chief’s defense lawyer, several times during his testimony, seemed unshaken by the accusation. He said he had never told investigators that he killed the captive because no one had bothered to ask.

The medic testified under the protection of a sweeping grant of immunity from the Navy, shielding him not just from criminal prosecution but also from other consequences, like being stripped of his elite assignment with the SEALs or being given a less-than-honorable discharge.

However, the immunity agreement only covers truthful testimony, and is void if he is found to have lied under oath. A conviction for perjury would clear the way for the medic to be jailed, forced out of the military, or both.

In court on Wednesday, Judge Aaron Rugh, who is presiding over Chief Gallagher’s court-martial, said Special Operator Scott’s testimony could not be used against him unless it was untrue: “I think it’s pretty clear his statements can’t be used for any purpose other than perjury that occurred in this courtroom.”

When a prosecutor asked Special Operator Scott in court last week why he had waited until he was on the stand to assert that he had killed the captive, the medic replied that Chief Gallagher had a wife and family, and said, “I don’t think he should spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Chief Gallagher’s defense lawyer, Mr. Parlatore, portrayed the medic’s bombshell testimony not as a sudden change of story, but as evidence of shoddy work by the Navy. He said the service’s criminal investigators and lawyers had never asked the medic the obvious question of what had caused the captive’s death.

“This is the pattern with these prosecutors,” Mr. Parlatore told the jury. “They had a theory, and they ignored everything else.”

Navy investigative documents obtained by The New York Times show that investigators had asked Special Operator Scott a number of times, in the presence of other agents and lawyers, to detail the cause of the captive’s death.

The Navy official said that Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents and Navy prosecutors would be able to testify in a perjury trial that the medic had repeatedly given them a very different account of the captive’s death: that he saw Chief Gallagher stab the captive two or three times, not once; that he saw blood rushing from the stab wounds; that the wounds were fatal; and that Special Operator Scott had watched the captive stop breathing and die from those wounds.

The medic’s testimony in court appeared to conflict with all of those statements, as well as with photos offered in evidence at the trial that show a pool of blood on the ground by the victim.

Before Special Operator Scott’s testimony, a succession of other SEALs took the stand to describe the morning in May 2017 when the wounded teenage fighter was brought in. Special Operations Chief Craig Miller testified that he saw Chief Gallagher take out a custom-made knife and stab the captive two or three times.

Several SEALs said Chief Gallagher and the platoon commander, Lt. Jacob Portier, then gathered members of the platoon around the captive’s corpse for a group photo and a re-enlistment ceremony.

Lieutenant Portier has been charged with failing to report the killing. He has pleaded not guilty.

Three SEALs testified that while the platoon was deployed in Iraq, they saw Chief Gallagher fire a sniper rifle repeatedly at unarmed civilians, hitting an old man with a white beard and a school-age girl with a flowered hijab. Those shootings are included among the charges in the war-crimes trial, charges that the chief denies.

Because Special Operator Scott was just a foot away when the captive was stabbed, and remained with the captive until he died, he is considered a crucial witness in the trial. His testimony on Thursday blindsided some of his friends in the SEAL platoon who text one another regularly in a group chat that they call the “sewing circle,” according to one SEAL in the circle. The SEAL, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said the medic had never mentioned killing the captive to the SEALs in the circle.

Members of the platoon who reported Chief Gallagher’s actions to superiors more than a year ago say they have come under heavy pressure since then over breaking a widespread culture of silence in the secretive, tight-knit SEAL teams. In court, some of the SEALs said they had received threats and had begun carrying weapons for self-defense.

Text messages obtained by law enforcement officials show that Chief Gallagher, who is well known among Navy SEALs, spread the names of his accusers to other SEALs on both coasts. In one text to another SEAL, the chief wrote, “The only thing we can do as good team guys is pass the word on those traitors. They are not brothers at all.”

A number of prominent former SEALs have publicly sided with Chief Gallagher, including Marcus Luttrell, who is the subject of a best-selling book and action movie. Conservative media outlets have portrayed Chief Gallagher as a wrongly accused military hero and have given his family and supporters a forum to argue that his accusers are liars and malcontents.

In text messages that were read in court, Special Operator Scott told other SEALs that Chief Gallagher had confronted him about the accusations. “Not sure how to handle him,” he texted the sewing circle. “But he is ready to fight and kill.”

Evidence presented in court suggested that the pressure had led some SEALs in the platoon to question whether to speak out.

Special Operator Dalton Tolbert, a sniper who was in Chief Gallagher’s platoon in 2017 and is now assigned to SEAL Team Six, testified on Friday that he had witnessed Chief Gallagher shoot an old man who, he said, “didn’t deserve to die.”

He told the court that he believes he will probably be cut from SEAL Team 6 because of his part in the trial and the public attention it has drawn. But despite that, he sent other platoon members a text message a few weeks before the trial urging them not to give in to pressure to keep silent.

“I know guys are all in different situations right now,” he wrote. “Some are worried about careers, others threatened with jail time or even death threats.” But if any of his fellow SEALs refused to testify out of loyalty to Chief Gallagher or to the SEALs’ culture of silence, he wrote, “I think our friendship will end there.”

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