- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The Air Force has turned down a request by two American pilots to conduct a new investigation of the "friendly fire" bombing deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in April.
The rejection sets the stage for a Jan. 13 pretrial hearing at which the Air Force will attempt to show that Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach of the Illinois Air National Guard were criminally negligent.
The two mistook a live-fire training exercise for enemy fire and dropped a bomb on the Canadians.
The two men's attorneys had asked Air Force Secretary James G. Roche to order a new investigation on several grounds.
Attorneys Charles Gittins and David Beck said the joint Air Force-Canadian accident board did not include an Air National Guard representative, as required by military regulations. They accuse the Air Force of leaving a Guard member off the board to head off any dissension over a verdict.
The rejection of a new probe came from Col. Craig Smith, chief of the Air Force's military justice division. He wrote on Oct. 29 that it would be "inappropriate" for Mr. Roche to intervene.
Col. Smith suggested the request go to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who is convening the pretrial, or Article 32, hearing that is to take place in January at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
U.S. Central Command, which is running the war in Afghanistan, ordered the original investigation that found the two U.S. pilots at fault.
Col. Smith wrote to the two attorneys that "because convening friendly fire investigations is reserved for combatant commanders, Air Force instructions concerning aircraft accident investigations are not controlling."
The colonel's legal interpretation brought a heated reply from Mr. Gittins, Maj. Schmidt's attorney. Mr. Gittins charges that the Air Force conducted a "shoddy investigation" to ensure criminal charges were brought against the pilots to please a key ally Canada.
Mr. Gittins, in a reply to Col. Smith, asked that, if Air Force instructions did not govern the board investigation, why did the top Air Force investigator cite them in his report.
"If the [Air Force instructions] did not govern the conduct of the investigation, it begs the question of why [Brig Gen. Stephen T. Sargeant] said it did," the lawyer wrote. "There must have been a military reason to justify departure from the regulation that Gen. Sargeant even in his executive summary said he was following."
Mr. Gittins adds, "Having now had the opportunity to review the classified testimony and evidence that was collected by Brig. Gen. Sargeant, I am now even more firmly convinced that Gen. Sargeant produced a biased flawed investigative report that merits investigation in its own right."
Majs. Schmidt and Umbach have received support from local politicians as well as fellow combat pilots who bemoan the Air Force's decision to criminalize a mistake made in the "fog of war."
Illinois Gov. George Ryan held a legal-defense fund-raiser for the two at the executive mansion in Springfield, home base for the pilots' F-16 squadron.
Their defense will center on the fact that neither they nor the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft were informed that the Canadians would be training that night. They will also point out that coalition aircraft were previously fired on during patrols in the area around Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Air Force has declined to comment on Mr. Gittins' complaint.
A Pentagon official who asked not to be named said the pilots may raise all of these issues at the Article 32 hearing presided over by a military judge. The judge will then make a recommendation to Gen. Carlson on any punishment.
Mr. Gittins wrote to Col. Smith that "if your letter was meant to address substance it failed miserably."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide