- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Army is booting out a 13-year public affairs sergeant for including in an unclassified government email the same information about a special operations unit and Osama bin Laden found on Army.mil web pages.

The irony in the narrative of Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch is that his motive was to keep classified material away from public view.

His disclosure in a private Army email is also the same information as told by his commander in chief, Barack Obama, in May 2011 when the president visited Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to personally thank the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), or “Night Stalkers,” for its critical role in killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

And the transgression of Sgt. Branch, 34, is on its face far less serious than that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who faced no punishment for keeping classified data on her personal unsecured server.

“The Army just doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that Obama told 2,000-plus Fort Campbell soldiers in a public forum after the private meeting with SOAR,” Sgt. Branch told The Washington Times.

Sgt. Branch, now stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, has 10 days to persuade an Army command to reverse the decision or else his beloved career ends.

“I love the Army,” he said. “I like my job. The reason I’m so in love with the Army is I’m a career soldier. I’ve done three tours in Iraq. I’ve survived cancer twice. The Army is my career. It’s what I know. It is my life. My dad was a soldier. My brother’s a soldier. My grandfather was a soldier. I like telling the Army story because I’m a writer. That’s what I do.”

In recent months, Sgt. Branch’s cause has been taken up by a former Army judge advocate, Jeffery Addicott, who directs the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio, Texas. Mr. Addicott represents, pro bono, military personnel he believes are unjustly prosecuted.

“At a time when President Trump is calling for the buildup of our military, and rightfully so, it is ironic that the Army is seeking to jettison a dedicated, three-time Iraqi War veteran,” Mr. Addicott told The Times.

Safeguarding information

The story begins in February 2014, when Sgt. Branch did public relations for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).

Sgt. Branch reviewed a proposed article by the Boeing Co. for the defense contractor’s internal news service.

The story told of 160th SOAR personnel visiting a Boeing unit in Mesa, Arizona, and mentioned that the aviation unit inserted the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

Sgt. Branch realized that the Defense Department had never officially recognized that role. He thus sent an email to his public affairs boss saying that the officer should tell Boeing to delete that sentence.

That was Sgt. Branch’s crime. He repeated the sentence in an official .mil email.

Days later, he learned that a higher-up had seen the email thread and alerted Army intelligence. He was ordered home, and an investigation ensued.

By April he was offered a choice: Face a court-martial or agree to nonjudicial punishment known as an Article 15.

Rather than risk a criminal conviction, he opted for the Article 15 hearing, at which he received an oral reprimand.

End of story, he thought.

The Army transferred Sgt. Branch to Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, where he edited a peninsulawide military newspaper.

The Army had been gearing up a culling operation known as the Quantitative Management Program as budget cuts forced a reduction of thousands of active-duty personnel. The QMP identified blemished soldiers, and Sgt. Branch became one of them in 2015 because his seemingly innocuous Article 15 resulted in a one-time poor performance evaluation.

That was all that was needed for “Big Army” in Washington to single him out for separation.

Sgt. Branch started second-guessing his decision not to seek a court-martial, which Mr. Addicott surmised he would have won.

“In my professional opinion as a JAG officer with 20 years in service and having tried over 150 cases, they would have not brought this to a court-martial if he had turned down the Article 15,” Mr. Addicott said. “There is no way the government would get a conviction, particularly based on the fact that President Obama had already released the information to the public. If they did bring it to a trial, Sgt. Branch would exercise his right to demand a jury, and they would never get a conviction.”

The soldier began appealing, with his best chance being the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. It could nullify his bad performance evaluation and remove the basis for early dismissal. But the board refused — twice.

“I laid out that I protected the information,” Sgt. Branch said. “Boeing took out the point about bin Laden after I gave the guidance of basically recommending an op-sec [operational security] review. The info was safeguarded. Now you guys want to dismiss me.”

By last fall, a desperate Sgt. Branch decided to break out of the chain of command and go pubic. He appeared on the Fox TV station in El Paso, Texas.

Sitting at home in civilian clothes, he told the news crew about the injustice of being fired for merely trying to prevent classified information from appearing in an industry newsletter.

The Army struck again. The command notified him he was now a target of the Criminal Investigation Command (CID). The action started before he went on TV.

The sergeant does not know for sure why a new probe began, but he believes it was based on the information he inserted in his official appeal with the Army Board for Correction. There is a chance the Army knew he had recorded the TV interview.

Agents summoned him to an FBI office and ushered him into a secure room, or “skiff,” to answer questions. As the session became more accusatory, he decided he needed a lawyer present and stopped talking.

Last week, he said, his Force Bliss commander notified him the CID cleared him of wrongdoing. But that meant his service extension would end and the clock started again. He now must be out of the Army in 10 days.

Mr. Addicott said he has been unable to persuade the Army to give him a copy of the CID investigation report to determine the exact allegation. He must file a Freedom of Information Act request.

Sgt. Branch said he did learn he was suspected, but not charged, with disobeying a direct order by appearing on TV.

Obama goes to Fort Campbell

Sgt. Branch’s two years of investigations and appeals started in February 2014. He wrote a line in an official email to his commander saying Boeing should remove references to the bin Laden raid when discussing the 160th SOAR.

By that time, of course, the world knew it was the 160th that inserted the SEALs into a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Then-President Barack Obama drove home the connection just days after the killing, when he and Vice President Joseph R. Biden did a victory lap. They arrived at Fort Campbell to thank, in private, the “Night Stalkers.”

“The leaders’ first stop after landing was to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment compound where the distinguished guests spoke privately with the 160th SOAR leadership and Soldiers,” said the Army’s official story on the visit found on its web address, Army.mil.

Mr. Obama later told 101st Airborne Division soldiers: “I had the privilege of meeting the extraordinary special ops folks who honored that promise. There was a chance for me to say on behalf of all Americans and people around the world, ‘Job well done.’

“These Americans deserve credit for one of the greatest intelligence military operations in our nation’s history,” Mr. Obama said, “but so does every person who wears America’s uniform. The finest military the world has ever known, and that includes all of you men and women of the 101st.”

Another Army story was even more specific about the 160th’s role.

On Army.mil, a May 9, 2011, Army New Service Story on the Obama visit said: “It was the Night Stalkers who are credited with flying the mission in Pakistan that transported the Navy’s “Seal Team 6” on an operation that resulted in the capture and kill of terrorist Osama bin Laden.”

Sgt. Branch reads those stories today and asks why he is being singled out.

“In 2011 it was on the Army home page,” he said. “It makes no sense to dismiss me from service. Policy dictates that anything published on the Army home page has to be properly vetted through various organizations. Obama visiting Campbell and talking about the bin Laden raid is considered mission and operational security info, [which] means it has to get vetted. It’s still on the home page today.”

The Times asked the 160th public affairs office why it punished a soldier for trying to keep classified material out of public view. The office did not respond.

Sgt. Branch portrays himself as a committed soldier who has endured. He has undergone three tours in Iraq as well as two surgeries to remove a cancerous thyroid gland.

His wife, Elsa, gave birth in November to their son. “My wife delivered three weeks early because of high blood pressure from stress as a result of our fight for me to stay in the Army,” he said.

He spent “every dime we had” on a lawyer before turning to Mr. Addicott and his terrorism law center.

Sgt. Branch provided The Times with his non-commissioned officer (NCO) performance evaluations to show that his superiors gave him high marks before the February 2014 email, one poor evaluation because of it, and then another stellar evaluation a year later in South Korea.

In his 2012 evaluation, his public affairs commander at the 160th said: “potential unlimited; continue to place in positions of greater responsibility.”

He received the highest grade, “excellence,” for overall competence.

In 2015, his first evaluation after the poor one, he received the highest possible score — which the Army calls a “1-1” — for competence and leadership.

His commander wrote “extremely capable NCO; undoubtedly in the top 5 percent of all NCOs I have worked with in the past 15 years.”

Sgt. Branch said the documents show that he was a stellar NCO before the email incident and a top performer afterward in the eyes of his commanders.

On Friday he was summoned for a meeting with his commanding officer and was handed a “counseling letter” that, in fact, served as his termination notice.

The letter said his security clearance was permanently revoked. It said there was probable cause he disclosed the 160th mission a second time, but there was insufficient evidence to seek a court-martial.

Again, Sgt. Branch said he believes the “second time” refers to his written appeals within the Army or possibly his command had heard that he was interviewed for the TV story the previous April. The segment aired in late September. The CID probe began Sept. 1.

Once he receives official notice from Maj. Gen. Robert P. White, 1st Armored Division Commander, he is to report to the Fort Bliss transition office, a final stop from soldier to civilian.

“I’m still waiting on the general and praying he sees me first in his open-door policy,” Sgt. Branch said.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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