By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy announced on Wednesday it would scrap plans to carry out reviews of three Navy SEALs that could have led to their ouster from the elite force, after President Donald Trump's extraordinary intervention in a related case.
"I have determined that any failures in conduct, performance, judgment, or professionalism exhibited by these officers be addressed through other administrative measures as appropriate," acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said in a statement.
The decision follows Trump's order on Sunday that Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher keep his status as a Navy SEAL, even after he was convicted of battlefield misconduct. The review of the three other SEALs was connected to the Gallagher case.
Critics say the actions undermine military justice and send a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated. Trump's former Navy secretary, Richard Spencer, who was fired on Sunday over the case, has spoken out against the president on the issue.
"The president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices," Spencer wrote in a piece published by the Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-spencer-i-was-fired-as-navy-secretary-heres-what-ive-learned-because-of-it/2019/11/27/9c2e58bc-1092-11ea-bf62-eadd5d11f559_story.html on Wednesday.
Trump has argued that Gallagher's case was mishandled by the Navy and said that he is defending America's warfighters from unfair and unfounded prosecution.
The now-terminated reviews of the three remaining SEALs -- Lieutenant Jacob Portier, Lieutenant Commander Robert Breisch and Lieutenant Thomas MacNeil -- had received far less attention than the Gallagher case.
A military jury in July convicted Gallagher of illegally posing for pictures with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter while deployed to Iraq in 2017, but acquitted him of murder in the detainee's death. Gallagher also was cleared of charges of attempted murder in the wounding of two civilians, a schoolgirl and an elderly man, shot from a sniper's perch.
Portier, Breisch and MacNeil were under scrutiny in the Gallagher affair as his superiors.
Modly said his decision to scrap the reviews should not be interpreted as a diminishment of the SEAL ethos, which he quoted. It says the elite fighters serve with honor "on and off the battlefield."
"The United States Navy, and the Naval Special Warfare Community specifically, have dangerous and important work to do," he said in his statement. "In my judgment, neither deserves the continued distraction and negative attention that recent events have evoked."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sonya Hepinstall)