President Donald Trump, carrying through on a previous pledge, granted full pardons on Friday to a pair of Army officers convicted of or charged with war crimes — and also promoted a Navy SEAL who was tried and acquitted for similar violations of the laws of armed conflict.
The grants of clemency for Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matthew Golsteyn — and the promotion to chief petty officer of Edward Gallagher, who had previously been demoted from that rank — were approved despite lingering concerns that such presidential interference will damage the integrity of the military justice system.
“The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted,” the White House said in a statement. “For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, ‘when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.’”
Lorance was found guilty by a military court on two counts of second-degree murder for ordering his soldiers to fire on three men in Afghanistan in 2008. He was convicted in part on the strength of the testimony of members of the infantry platoon he was commanding.
“He has served more than six years of a 19-year sentence he received,” the White House said Friday. “Many Americans have sought executive clemency for Lorance, including 124,000 people who have signed a petition to the White House, as well as several members of Congress.”
But not everyone who was there agrees.
“The guy’s a war criminal,” Andrew Duggins, a former Army captain who served with Lorance in the same unit of the 82nd Airborne Division at the time and who read sworn statements immediately of Lorance’s platoon-mates after the mission. “It’s clear cut and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue for Clint to be in jail for his full sentence. He was a bully and he was scared.”
“It was a nasty deployment,” Duggins added when told of the pardon on Friday. “That company had taken a number of casualties, and Clint’s attitude was ‘I’m just going to go out there guns blazing and make a statement.’ He was scared to go out and do missions, and this was one of his very first missions. Privates came back from that mission in tears because they were shocked, they knew how wrong it was, and they knew that he had given an illegal order.”
Golsteyn is still set to stand trial for the alleged extrajudicial killing of a suspected terrorist bomb-maker in Afghanistan in 2010.
A Green Beret team leader at the time of the killing, he was awarded the Silver Star for separate actions during the deployment. The Army later revoked that award after he acknowledged the killing during a CIA job interview, prompting the first investigation into his actions.
“The terrorist bombmaker, as identified by an Afghan informant, who had killed our troops, was detained and questioned,” the White House said Friday in recounting his case. “Golsteyn was compelled to release him, however, due in part to deficiencies within the fledgling Afghan detention system. Golsteyn has said he later shot the terrorist because he was certain that the terrorist’s bombmaking activities would continue to threaten American troops and their Afghan partners, including Afghan civilians who had helped identify him.
“After nearly a decade-long inquiry and multiple investigations,” the White House statement added, “a swift resolution to the case of Major Golsteyn is in the interests of justice.
But Golsteyn’s pardon also struck some as going too far by meddling in an ongoing legal proceeding.
“In the Golsteyn case, it’s disappointing that the process is being cut off before it reached its conclusion,” said Bob Wilson, a retired Special Forces colonel who commanded the Green Beret contingent in Afghanistan as well as the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which Golsteyn belonged.
“It’s not appropriate and the military is owed better than for that process to be cut short for sound bites on cable news and political purposes,” he added.
Gallagher’s recent acquittal on most charges stemming from the murder of a teenage prisoner of war in Iraq drew widespread attention due to Trump’s defense of his actions. Members of Gallagher’s SEAL platoon testified against him. But in what was described as a botched prosecution, some of the witnesses contradicted one another and even themselves.
Gallagher was acquitted of the murder charge but was found guilty of the lesser offense of posing for photographs with the corpse and was demoted.
“Before the prosecution of Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward Gallagher, he had been selected for promotion to Senior Chief, awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, and assigned to an important position in the Navy as an instructor,” the White House maintained on Friday. “Though ultimately acquitted on all of the most serious charges, he was stripped of these honors as he awaited his trial and its outcome. Given his service to our Nation, a promotion back to the rank and pay grade of Chief Petty Officer is justified.”
But the president’s promotion of Gallagher also struck at least one fellow service member as interfering in military’s process for meting out justice.
“The Gallagher decision undercuts the chain of command in Naval Special Warfare who were really trying hard to do the right thing,” said retired Marine Col. Andrew Milburn, who commanded the special operations task force of SEALs and Marine Raiders in Iraq during the rotation before Gallagher’s. “What bothers me particularly is that the SEALs who turned Gallagher in absolutely did the right thing, and that’s the kind of bravery that we should want to encourage.
“This decision undercuts all of that and that whole chain of command who did the right thing on Gallagher,” he added. “Where does it leave the guys who had the moral courage to come forward.”
In a statement, the ACLU called the pardons an “utterly shameful use of presidential powers.”
The Department of the Army said Friday it will implement the pardons.