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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Honor and Betrayal’

- - Wednesday, November 13, 2013

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
Da Capo Press, $26.99, 356 pages

In this very important book, author Patrick Robinson shows how the culture of our military is imperiled by a high command that too frequently allows political correctness to trump honor and common sense. The book recounts a daring raid by members of the Navy's SEAL Team 10, in which a ruthless terrorist leader was captured.

It also takes us through the disgraceful treatment accorded three heroic participants in that mission, who were subjected to court-martial trials when, without explanation, Army Gen. Charles T. Cleveland of the special operations command accepted the al Qaeda playbook lies of a fanatical war criminal over the word of our SEALs.

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 public 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. They could easily have killed Hashim and the not-so-innocent folks who harbored him.

Instead, Hashim was seized, handcuffed and hooded, and delivered into confinement. It was a "picture-perfect" operation; not a shot was fired.

After his capture, Hashim claimed he had been abused by the Americans. This was an expected move recommended in the "Manchester Manual," a captured al Qaeda instruction book. 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 his transfer to Iraqi custody (where was subsequently tried and hanged), admitted leaving the prisoner unattended in violation of his orders. Westinson eventually claimed he saw Matt McCabe punch Hashim, 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 all of the other witness accounts of what happened.

Mr. Robinson details the demeaning treatment of the three SEALs at the hands of the high command. They were disadvantaged by their complete confidence that their top commanders would never betray them and 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 Navy veteran and defense lawyer — at the brazen impropriety of the command's conduct. Again and again, Mr. Keefe, Mr. McCabe and Mr. "Gonzales" were pressured to lie to get favorable treatment. At one point, all SEALs involved in the raid were arrested and accused of a conspiracy to obstruct the case by giving false testimony in favor of the three SEALs. The high command even threatened to turn Mr. Keefe over to the Iraqis for prosecution and imprisonment.

When the SEALs did request 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," for if unlucky, they may have to run the same shameful gantlet.

Ultimately, Mr. McCabe was charged with assaulting Hashim. Mr. Keefe and Mr. "Gonzales" were charged with failing to prevent the assault and with lying to cover it up. The high command offered them the option of nonjudicial 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, but was constrained by the presiding military judge, who (probably at risk to his career) rebuked the prosecution for its conduct. All three SEALs were acquitted; it was clear that the prosecution's evidence was flimsy and contrived. This underscored that the charges should never have been filed in the first place. Yet Gen. Cleveland issued a statement that was unapologetic and utterly unsympathetic to the SEALs.

Those who respect our military will be angered reading this book. They will be frustrated to read that Gen. Cleveland, who ordered the investigation and prosecution of the SEALs, 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.

Ray V. Hartwell III is a Navy veteran and a senior fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute.