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Persecuting Our Heroes

A shameful page in our military's history.

By 11.26.13


Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah” – and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured
By Patrick Robinson, with Matthew McCabe and Jonathan Keefe
De Capo Press, 356 pages, $26.99

On Veterans Day in 2010, I published an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about three heroic Navy SEALs who participated in a bold and successful raid to capture a notorious terrorist, and how they were later accused of “abuse” and ultimately acquitted in court martial trials. I was interested in their story as a Navy veteran and as a lawyer who has represented both companies and individuals accused of wrongdoing by our Department of Justice. Moreover, I have a connection to one of the SEALs: I know Jonathan Keefe’s parents, and his uncle Peter Keefe is a close friend; no finer people walk the planet.

It pleases me to report that Patrick Robinson, co-author of the best seller Lone Survivor, has written a book about these events with the cooperation of Jonathan Keefe and Matthew McCabe, two of the three SEALs involved. This is a very important book; Mr. Robinson shows how the culture of our military is imperiled by a high command that often allows political correctness to trump honor and common sense. The author takes us through not only the daring and flawless raid by members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 10, but also the disgraceful treatment accorded to three mission participants when, without explanation, Army General Charles T. Cleveland of the special operations command accepted the al Qaeda playbook lies of a fanatical war criminal over the word of our men in uniform.

In September 2009, SEALs Matthew McCabe, Jonathan Keefe, and “Sam Gonzales” (real name withheld because he’s still wearing Navy blue) participated in a high-stakes operation in Iraq. Their goal was to capture Ahmad Hashim Abd Al-Isawi (“Hashim”), who was responsible for many atrocities including the beheading and mutilation of American civilian contractors in Fallujah in 2004. 

When intelligence pinpointed Hashim’s location, the SEALs infiltrated his compound at night, on foot, through miles of hostile territory to avoid having their quarry warned by the sound of approaching helicopters. They could easily have killed Hashim and the not-so-innocent folks who harbored him. Instead, Hashim was seized, handcuffed, hooded, and delivered into confinement. It was a “picture perfect” operation; there were no casualties—not a shot was fired.

After his capture, Hashim claimed he had been abused—given a “bloody lip”—by the Americans. This was a tactic recommended in the “Manchester Manual,” a captured al Qaeda instruction book that also provides helpful guidance on plucking out the eyeballs of infidels and using power drills on their skulls. Unfortunately, when Hashim played the “abuse” card it had exactly the effect hoped for by terrorists: It caused our military leadership to turn against our own troops.

An investigation ensued. Brian Westinson, a sailor assigned to guard Hashim before the terrorist’s transfer to Iraqi custody (where he was subsequently tried and hanged), admitted leaving the prisoner unattended in violation of his orders. Westinson eventually claimed he saw Matt McCabe punch Hashim in the “gut,” and that Keefe and “Gonzales” saw what happened. Westinson’s version of events changed at every recounting, and also conflicted with Hashim’s. Both were contradicted by the numerous other witness accounts.

Mr. Robinson details the demeaning treatment of the three SEALs at the hands of the high command during the course of the purported investigation. The three were assigned menial duties, stripped of their weapons, and separated from their unit. Even so, they maintained complete confidence that their top commanders would never betray them, would never proceed with a prosecution once they heard the consistent and credible accounts of the SEAL team members. They “never dreamed” they might need lawyers.

Although already familiar with the story, I was shocked – as a veteran and defense lawyer – at the brazen impropriety of the command’s conduct. Again and again, the three SEALs were pressured to lie and turn against one another to get favorable treatment. At one point all the SEALs involved in the raid were arrested and accused of a conspiracy to obstruct the case by giving false testimony in favor of their accused comrades. The high command even threatened to turn Keefe over to the Iraqis for prosecution and imprisonment. 

When the SEALs did ask for military lawyers, their requests went unanswered for weeks. During that time they were ordered, separately, to sign incriminating documents. After repeatedly refusing to change their stories, or to sign documents without legal advice, they were finally assigned lawyers who immediately gave them strong advice: to sign nothing. The book’s account of the high command’s intimidation tactics should be required reading for all military personnel today, especially those operating in “Indian country.” If unlucky they might find themselves having to run the same shameful gauntlet.

Ultimately McCabe was charged with assaulting Hashim. Keefe and “Gonzales” were charged with failing to prevent the assault and with lying to cover it up. The high command offered them the option of non-judicial punishment—a letter of reprimand—if they would “admit” to conduct they all vehemently denied. The three demanded trial by court martial, the only option that would force the command to present its proof of conduct they insisted never occurred.

As the trials approached, the prosecution’s inappropriate tactics continued. For example, when numerous witnesses came forward with testimony that supported the SEALs, the witnesses were read their rights and effectively threatened with charges of a cover up if they did not support the prosecution’s case. Ultimately a military judge rebuked the prosecution for its conduct, ruling (perhaps at risk to his career) that the witnesses could testify without facing criminal charges for doing so. 

All three SEALs were acquitted. Verdicts were reached swiftly. Debriefing of jurors revealed that they found the prosecution’s key witnesses, Westinson and Hashim, totally lacking in credibility. Most observers came away believing that Hashim bit and bloodied his own lip, and that Westinson concocted his evolving story in a successful effort to avoid disciplinary action for failing to watch Hashim. 

At the end of the day, it was clear that the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy and contrived, and the evidence in support of the SEALs was overwhelming. This underscored that the charges should never have been filed in the first place. Nevertheless, afterwards, General Cleveland issued a statement that was unapologetic and utterly unsympathetic to the SEALs.

We can all take heart that the three SEALs showed tremendous skill and courage in the operation that bagged a much-wanted terrorist, and showed great moral courage and personal honor by choosing the risk of a prison sentence in order to clear their names. Reassuringly, the military judges and jurors involved showed similar fortitude. At trial the prosecution urged them to “find their moral courage.” They all did.

Those who respect our military will be angered reading this book. And they will be frustrated to read that General Cleveland, who ordered the investigation and prosecution of the SEALs, and was unrepentant about doing so even when it was crystal clear the case was completely baseless, has been nominated by President Obama for promotion. Mr. Robinson wonders, as we all should, what has happened to our commanders when they care less for the rights of our military personnel than for those of lawless killers.

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About the Author

Ray V. Hartwell, III was a Washington lawyer and a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. He died on February 7, 2014, in Anniston, Alabama.