The Spencer Standoff with Trump over Gallagher Distracts from the Navy’s Real Problems

It is easy to chalk up all of the Trump-initiated chaos in the Navy over the past few weeks to just another example of a mercurial President’s disdain for norms, and his willful ignorance of military affairs. However, focusing on Trump’s many faults obscures something even more troubling: the Navy has serious problems right now and its former leader, recently fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, was apparently not up to the task of fixing them.

The SEALs’ organizational culture

If you judged the Navy by media coverage alone recently, you might think that all its problems were tied to one man: Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. Acquitted last summer of all but one minor charge in a problematic court martial. Trump subsequently reversed Gallagher’s court martial  demotion along with his pardons of a convicted war criminal and a Green Beret facing a court martial for war crimes, admittedly none of which reflects well on the President’s judgment or understanding of his role as Commander in Chief. Trump had latched onto Gallagher’s story through personal connections and by catching positive sound bites about the SEAL on all the conservative news outlets he loves to watch throughout the day, where Gallagher had become a cause célèbre.

Presidential intervention notwithstanding, Gallagher’s case serves to highlight serious organizational culture problems within the SEALs that undercut their effectiveness at conducting sensitive counterterrorism operations, where the force remains in high demand. The court martial  and ensuing media attention shed light on the indiscipline and recklessness that appears to be rampant in the force, from  the unlawful killing of a wounded enemy detainee that was at the center of the Gallagher case, to posing with corpses, binge drinking during operational deployments and alleged sexual misconduct among senior SEAL leaders. SEALs are also implicated in the killing of an Army Green Beret working alongside the force in Africa. In fact, when it comes to the SEALs’ problems, Gallagher appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. You’d never know that from the past few weeks though.

Gallagher’s case

The Navy, led by Secretary Spencer and bolstered by flag officers like Rear Admiral Collin Green who commands Navy Special Warfare Command, seemingly determined that restoring good order and discipline in the troubled SEALs was contingent on obtaining some sort of accountability from the slippery Chief Gallagher, no matter how small or unsatisfying that accountability might be. So, despite the President’s recent action to restore Gallagher’s rank and his continued interest in his case, the Navy nonetheless announced it was convening a board to determine whether the retiring SEAL could keep his Trident.

The President, as anyone who has paid attention to him over the past two-and-a-half years would expect, objected and tweeted out an “order” to the Navy to back off and let Gallagher retire with his Trident, noting that the Gallagher case “had been handled bad from the beginning.” Chaos ensued, with reports indicating that both Secretary Spencer and Rear Admiral Green had threatened to resign if the President’s order stood (both men later denied it, although the Secretary of Defense told reporters that Secretary Spencer had misled the public about this as well).

Spencer’s secret plan

Then, as the Navy continued to exacerbate an already tense “civ-mil” standoff, the Navy Secretary made everything even worse. Leaving his boss, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in the dark, Spencer reportedly secretly approached the White House and attempted to make a deal that is still hard to fathom: in exchange for the President backing out of the Gallagher case, Spencer would ensure that Gallagher kept his trident and retired as a SEAL in good standing regardless of the Trident Review Board’s findings.

As Esper explained to the press, U.S. forces, and the American public, “if that deal had been consummated, if you will, somebody would have to compromise their integrity in the chain of command.”

Note how Spencer’s own defense in a Washington Post op-ed says, “If the review board concluded that Gallagher deserved to keep it, so be it”—but that was before the President took action and before the Navy Secretary came up with “my plan.” A plan that Spencer conspicuously does not describe to his readers. And in an interview with CBS News, Spencer appears to have accepted Esper’s description of his secret plan.

In pursuing his course of action, the Secretary of the Navy completely compromised his moral authority. His willingness to guarantee a  predetermined outcome of a Navy personnel action in exchange for favorable political treatment was immoral and unethical and should make it clear that Spencer was not the leader the Navy needs right now to fix the SEALs. It is hard to read the  “resignation letter” Spencer made public after his unceremonious firing as anything but self-serving hypocrisy when you take into account why Secretary Esper lost confidence in him.

If the Navy’s leaders are going to predetermine the results of an administrative board like a Trident Review, why bother convening these boards at all? The SEAL community, and Spencer himself put a great deal of stock into this board, portraying it as a critical tool to address discipline and misconduct issues in the SEALs. Now, it is doubtful that anyone in the SEAL community or their supporters have much faith in it. This is an unforced error that will make it harder for the next Navy Secretary and the uniformed service he leads to address these issues.

The Navy’s investigation and prosecution system

The SEALs weren’t the only problem that Spencer left behind for his successor to tackle, though. The Gallagher case also shed light on another serious challenge facing the Navy: its troubled legal and investigative arms. At the start of Gallagher’s court martial, a judge ordered the prosecuting team removed after it was accused of warrantless surveillance of Gallagher and his defense team. Prospective defense witnesses had also been recipients of “target letters” to deter them from testifying. During the court martial itself,  a prosecution witness undermined the entire case against Gallagher and admitted to one of the most serious charges himself, a sign that the Navy really wasn’t up to the task of prosecuting the high-profile case. In the end, Gallagher was acquitted of all but one charge.

While the Navy initiated a review of its legal services following the Gallagher court martial, there are troubling signs that much more needs to be done to improve the way the Navy investigates and prosecutes crimes. In November, a Navy judge ruled that a mass “formation arrest” carried out by a Marine Battalion with support from the Navy Criminal Investigative Service at Camp Pendleton was unlawful, which has put a human trafficking case on uncertain footing.

Whither readiness

All of these matters of military justice have also taken attention off of another serious issue with which the Navy is still grappling: readiness. In 2017, two separate Navy ship collisions just weeks apart left 17 sailors dead and caused millions of dollars of damage. Subsequent investigations indicated that these collisions were avoidable, and were due to systemic issues with training shortfalls and operational tempo that the Navy is still working to address. While Secretary Spencer spent the past several weeks and a great deal of political capital dealing with the Gallagher issue, readiness remains a challenge the service will be tackling long after his departure.

The next Secretary

So, in the wake of all these challenges, Trump’s nominee to replace Spencer, Ambassador and retired Rear Admiral Kenneth Braithwaite, will have his work cut out for him if he is confirmed as the next Secretary of the Navy. During confirmation hearings, the Senate should ask Admiral Braithwaite exactly what he is going to do to restore Navy sailors’ and civilians’ faith in the objectivity and fairness of its administrative processes; if Braithwaite doesn’t provide a satisfying answer, the Senate should send him packing and tell the President to nominate someone else. It would also be good to hear what Ambassador Braithwaite’s thoughts are about fixing the Navy SEALs and its legal and investigative arms as well, and how he will address Navy readiness.

Upon confirmation, the Secretary of Defense should direct the new Navy Secretary to conduct a review of all Navy administrative personnel actions for which his predecessor was responsible, and ensure those actions were conducted free of all political interference. Secretary Esper should also direct the new Secretary to examine ways to improve the Navy’s personnel administrative actions to ensure they are as objective and transparent as possible.

Immediately upon assuming the office, the new Secretary of the Navy should direct the Chief of Naval Operations to provide an update of ongoing actions to improve readiness, and work to ensure its legal and investigative arms are among the best in the Department of Defense, too.

Finally, the new Secretary of the Navy should work hard to draw a sharp contrast with his predecessor. In his words and actions, he should focus on restoring  faith and confidence in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. Above all, he should endeavor to keep from engaging in pointless standoffs with President Trump and the White House that will only exacerbate civil-military tension and will do little good for Navy sailors, civilians or readiness.

Instead, the Navy Secretary  should manage those incidents of Presidential interference should they occur and keep the uniformed Navy leadership out of the line of fire as best he can. If he does this well, he and the rest of the team he assembles can instead remain focused on addressing the many problems the Navy is facing and help make the Service better. 

About the Author(s)

Colonel (ret.) Bob Wilson

Bob Wilson is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel with over 26 years of service. Throughout his career, Bob commanded special operations troops in combat in Afghanistan, and led U.S. special operations forces in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. He also served as the Military Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, the Honorable John McHugh, and served in the White House as a Director for Counterterrorism in the National Security Council.