- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

Two American pilots charged in the "friendly fire" deaths of four Canadian soldiers are demanding a new investigation, saying the first Air Force probe was tainted by "unlawful command influence" and "investigator bias."

In an Oct. 11 letter to Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach, through their attorneys, accuse the Air Force brass of a series of errors in running the Coalition Investigative Board (CIB). The U.S.-Canadian board found the two Illinois Air National Guard pilots at fault in the mistaken bombing April 17 of Canadian soldiers near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A senior defense official at the Pentagon, responding to the pilots' complaints, rebutted some of their claims, and said other complaints could be aired at a yet-to-be-scheduled evidentiary hearing also known as an Article 32 hearing at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

"If they believe the report was defective in a substantial way that is certainly an issue for them to raise at the Article 32 hearing," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

An Air Force investigator, Brig. Gen. Stephen T. Sargeant, brought criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter against the two F-16 pilots on September 11. The Article 32 hearing will be held to determine whether they will face court-martials.

The pilots' attorneys say the probe was flawed from the start when Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who convened the CIB, appointed Gen. Sargeant as board president. The letter states that Gen. Moseley had in some way sponsored Gen. Sargeant's promotion to the rank of general three years ago. The letter states the two men's relationship violates a Defense Department instruction that requires "a disinterested third party" to investigate accidents.

"We have substantial concerns that unlawful command influence may have been exercised by Coalition Air Component Commander, who appointed the members of the board, by his intentional non-compliance with the governing Air Force instruction and appointment of his protege to investigate the accident," said the letter.

It also said Gen. Moseley did not follow regulations requiring the appointment of an Air National Guard member on boards that investigate ANG accidents.

But the senior defense official disputed whether Gen. Moseley ever sponsored Gen. Sargeant. The official said Gen. Sargeant's recommending officer in 1999 was the commander of U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific, not Gen. Moseley.

"If anyone has made that kind of allegation, there is no substance to it," the official said. The official said Gen. Moseley was Gen. Sargeant's superior when the two men served at Nellis Air Base, Nev., in 1997.

The letter to Mr. Roche cites "senior retired Air Force officers" who "provided us with evidence that Gen. Moseley was Brig. Gen. Sargeant's sponsor for promotion to general officer."

The defense official also said the Air Force was not required to follow the regulations for Air National Guard investigations because it was a "coalition mission."

The pilots' letter was signed by Charles Gittins, the attorney for Maj. Schmidt, and David Beck, who is representing Maj. Umbach. The Washington Times obtained a copy of the letter from a military source close to the investigation.

Mr. Roche issued a statement to The Times yesterday that said, "I have full confidence in the fairness of our military justice system. No decisions have been made on anyone's culpability. The evidence will be reviewed in the appropriate judicial forum."

A Pentagon source said the Air Force is still reviewing the letter's request for a new probe and would not comment on its accusations until the review is complete.

The Air Force in August removed Gen. Moseley from the case. The Air Force said it did so because of demands on the general's time as he runs air operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also said that since command issues would be raised at any hearing or trial, it wanted to avoid a conflict of interest, since Gen. Moseley may be called to testify.

The removal came a month after The Times disclosed that Gen. Moseley sent a memo to commanders after the "friendly fire" incident saying "it is difficult to imagine a scenario" for not holding fire.

The two pilots contend they fired in self-defense, believing the sparks of Canadian live-fire training to be anti-aircraft volleys from Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. The pilots also contend that Gen. Moseley's command structure failed to notify them that the Canadian soldiers were training near Kandahar the night of the incident.

They question Gen. Sargeant's willingness to fully investigate whether command failures, not pilot error, caused the accident. Gen. Sargeant's board report concluded that command-and-control failures did not cause the mishap.

The Air Force shifted the case from Gen. Moseley to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who commands the 8th Air Force at Barksdale. Col. Patrick Rosenow, a military judge, will preside at the Article 32 hearing. He will then make a recommendation on any punishment regarding the case to Gen. Carlson.

The letter to Mr. Roche states that before the April accident, the two pilots' air-group commander repeatedly complained up the chain of command to Gen. Moseley that the operations center "was unable to adequately maintain air space control" in both the no-fly zone over southern Iraq and flights over Afghanistan.

The letter quoted from an Air Force regulation that says "when investigating an ANG aircraft accident, [Gen. Moseley] will appoint an ANG member to the [aircraft investigation board]."

There was no ANG member on the joint Canadian-U.S. accident board.

The pilots' letter charges that Gen. Sargeant, an active-duty officer, did not want any ANG members on the board. The letter states that during a previous stint on an accident board in 1996, then-Col. Sargeant repeatedly clashed with Air National Guard members.

"Several members strongly disagreed with the opinions and conclusions reached by Col. Sargeant and provided a dissent to the report," the letter says. "Obviously, by not appointing Air National Guard members to the Coalition Investigation Board, neither Lt. Gen. Moseley nor Brig. Gen. Sargeant risked possible questions concerning investigation methodology from ANG personnel or ANG dissent that could embarrass the Air Force in the investigation of a politically charged incident that could have significant ramifications for the United States' relationship with Canada."

The letter said Gen. Sargeant scoffed at a 38-page written statement from Maj. Schmidt and did not mention it in the final report.

The letter asks Mr. Roche to suspend the criminal proceedings and appoint a new aircraft investigation board, with an ANG member on it.

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