Alan Cunningham, Graduate Student at Norwich University, discusses the legal possibility for charging United States SEAL Eddie Gallagher with perjury.....
It is well known that the United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land (US SEALs) have serious problems. The SEAL community has been plagued by extreme drug use and sexual assaults and has been found to engage in the murder of one of their own Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel. All of these incidences have led to well-founded allegations of a problematic culture within the SEALs and contributed to general sentiments of unprofessionalism within both the larger SOF community (Green Berets, Delta Force, Ranger Regiment) and the SEAL community itself.
No case better represents this than the case of SEAL Edward Gallagher. This will undoubtedly be a case that many have heard of as it was very well-publicized, unlike other cases involving U.S. SOF and SEAL personnel.
Edward Gallagher, a Chief Petty Officer (E-7) within the US Navy, had been a SEAL since 2004 and in the Navy as a medic since 1999. Throughout his career, he was commended by superiors for his coolness under fire, yet upon being assigned as the chief of a new platoon in 2017, his comrades brought forth allegations of indiscriminate fire against unarmed civilians, including girls and the elderly; other special operators reported similar behavior on previous deployments in addition to Gallagher’s bragging about having killed numerous persons while on deployment. On May 4, 2017, while on assignment in Mosul, Iraq, the SEALs captured a wounded 17-year-old ISIS fighter, Khaled Jamal Abdullah, and began treating him. According to SEALs who witnessed the event, Gallagher allegedly approached the wounded insurgent and repeatedly stabbed him with a hand-crafted hunting knife. Text messages between Gallagher and the former SEAL who crafted the knife, “implicate[d] [Gallagher] in the captive’s death.”
After these claims fell on deaf ears within the SEAL leadership, a Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) investigation was opened and eventually charged Gallagher in 2018 with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and obstruction of justice among other charges. Gallagher pleaded not guilty and claimed the entire trial was set up by disgruntled SEALs and NCIS agents; the New York Times reported: “…video interviews and private group text conversations…do not reveal any coordinated deception among the SEALs in the chief’s platoon.”
The case generated much of a media and political frenzy, with conservative US Representatives and President Donald Trump himself becoming involved. During the course of the trial, six SEALs took the stand and testified that Gallagher had murdered the captive fighter; however, the trial’s most stunning moment came when a SEAL medic, Petty Officer 1st Class (E-6) Corey Scott, testified under oath and with immunity that “he [Scott] blocked the seriously wounded teenager’s breathing tube and let him die.” Prosecutors subsequently claimed that Scott was lying to protect Gallagher. The jury subsequently found Gallagher not guilty of six of the seven charges, finding the SEAL guilty of only one count in the indictment, this being “the violation of posing for photographs with a dead war casualty.” He was sentenced to four months in jail and a demotion in rank to Petty Officer 1st Class, yet was released due to time served and held his original rank of Chief Petty Officer due to the personal intervention of President Trump. There was also some discussion of whether the US Navy would revoke Gallagher’s Trident, the badge that identifies him as a member of the SEAL community, yet Trump again interfered and mandated that Gallagher’s Trident be preserved.
On May 4, 2021, four years to the day after the incident in question occurred, Gallagher was interviewed for The Line podcast. In this interview, he stated, “The grain of truth in the whole thing is that that ISIS fighter was killed by us and that nobody at that time had a problem with it … We killed that guy. Our intention was to kill him. Everybody was on board … It’s the only truthful thing to this whole process; and then the rest of it just is like a bunch of contorted lies to, like, pin that whole scenario on me … I didn’t stab him. I didn’t stab that dude. That dude died from all the medical treatments that were done – and there was plenty of medical treatments that were done to him.”
Gallagher’s comments confirm what most veterans and persons who followed the case understood; that Gallagher had committed a crime and that he did indeed commit murder.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), it is possible that Gallagher could be charged with perjury. Perjury, as defined in the UCMJ, is when a person “upon a lawful oath or in any form allowed by law to be substituted for an oath, gives any false testimony material to the issue or matter of inquiry; or in any declaration, certificate, verification, or statement under penalty of perjury as permitted under section 1746 of title 28, subscribes any false statement material to the issue or matter of inquiry.” Depending upon the sworn statements made by Gallagher to NCIS investigators, it is possible that Gallagher could face charges provided his recent statements made in the podcast vary from what he detailed to investigators back in 2018.
These problems of drug use, murders, sexual assaults, and extreme unprofessionalism within the community are quite serious. These case studies, of which there are multiple, point to a significant problem within the community as a whole. This case study itself points to many issues within the military legal system, on the side of the prosecution and defense. Not only are these problems for the United States and their relationships with countries in which the SEALs are involved (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.), problems for counterterrorism policies, and problems for how the US is perceived abroad, but this also poses problems for the elite warriors of the SOF community.
To quote Admiral Collin P. Green, a SEAL and commander of Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) who was dedicated to reforming the SEAL community, “our force has drifted from our Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment … due to a lack of an action at all levels of leadership … We have found that a portion of this force is ethically misaligned with our culture. The root of our problem begins with members who fail to correct this behavior within their sphere of leadership and prioritize this misalignment over the loyalty to the Navy and nation. This erodes the foundation of trust we have earned with our leaders and the American people.”
Alan C. Cunningham is a student pursuing a Master of Arts degree in International Relations at Norwich University, Senior Military College, Vermont. He will be joining the United States Army upon the completion of his degree in the Summer of 2021 and also plans to gain a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham and a JD from Syracuse College of Law. He has previously been published in the U.S. Army War College’s War Room and Small Wars Journal.
Suggested Citation: Alan Cunningham, The Legal Possibility for Charging SEAL Eddie Gallagher with Perjury, JURIST – Student Commentary, June 4, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/06/alan-cunningham-eddie-gallagher-perjury/.
This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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