Dan Taberski is an expert at pulling on threads. His tireless curiosity and impeccable reporting resulted in a run of acclaimed investigative podcasts, including "Missing Richard Simmons", "Running From COPS", and "Surviving Y2K". He's back with an Apple original podcast "The Line", which uses the case of Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL charged with war crimes, as a lens to understand the blurred moral boundaries soldiers are asked to operate within when sent to battle.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
DAN TABERSKI: We talked to dozens and dozens of SEALs for this project and I just think you can’t underestimate the amount of moral stress and strain that they have been enduring over the past 20 years. And part of that is frustrating on another level because it’s all basically happening in secret, that basically after 9/11, we decided that we were going to fight wars, on the whole, covertly. And that the SEALs and other special operators were going to become the tip of the spear. And they were sent out on manhunting missions to get members of Al Qaeda and enemy Iraqis and enemy combatants. And, as one SEAL put it, that they were killing people so close you could smell their bad breath before they did it.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. The phrase “war crime” or “war crimed” or “war criminal” packs a very profound, specific moral punch for a reason, right? I think a lot of that grows out of the wake of World War II, honestly, and the Nuremberg Trials and the sort of recognition of the ghastliness, the sort of sheer evil of what the Nazis had done. But, of course, laws of war extend before then, and there has been this long wrestling among international legal theorists and generals and military leaders in different countries in different places to essentially try to civilize war, right? To draw these distinctions between things you can and cannot do, even when you are engaged in the act of killing and violence and destruction.
I think there's a certain kind of radical critique of that literature and that development that says all war's a crime and this is a way of sort of dressing it up and making it seem safe for consumption, or it's a way of making uncivilized barbarity and brutality seem fine and civilized and something that nations can do. But there's also a way in which I think, particularly in the wake of World War II, the distinctions between soldiers engaging on a battlefield and the torture and murder of people seems like a really important moral, salient one.
The U.S. has committed war crimes. This is something that Ilhan Omar got in a lot of trouble for saying, but that's just an absolute fact. It's happened in my lifetime multiple times. There have been war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Torture was a war crime. The torture, the waterboarding that we engaged in was a war crime, even if we said it wasn't because it wasn't technically torture. There was a very prominent case recently of an accusation of a war crime against a man named Eddie Gallagher, who is a chief petty officer, a Navy SEAL, who, with his Navy SEAL team, took captive a 17-year-old ISIS fighter in Mosul and posed with him, with his corpse. He was accused of stabbing him to death, of murdering him, and then posing with the corpse. He was tried and, in a remarkable turn of events, which we'll talk about, acquitted on the murder, but convicted of the crime of posing with the corpse. He was then subsequently pardoned by Donald Trump and became a kind of right-wing cause celeb.
I remember reading about the case and following pretty closely, and the thing that was most striking was the fact that the people that turned him in were the people on that Navy team, the warriors that fought with him. I remember thinking, "Wow, it must have really freaked them out to do that,” because obviously there's incredibly intense camaraderie. There's also a definitely pretty strong no-snitching norm, I think, in combat units like that. So I remember thinking, "Wow, this guy must have really been off the rails.”
But the story sort of floated at the periphery of the news, and I always kind of wanted to dig deeper into it. So I was super psyched when I saw that the very, very excellent podcast host and producer, Dan Taberski, had a new podcast out about the case called “The Line.” It's on Apple Original Podcasts. It's out now. It's really excellent, and I would suggest that after you listen to this interview, you go listen to all the episodes. We're going to just sort of touch on some of it. But it's really well produced, really well reported, tons of great interviews and voices in there, and it's my great pleasure to welcome Dan Taberski to “Why Is This Happening?”
DAN TABERSKI: Hey, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
CHRIS HAYES: Dan, tell me how you got into this story.
DAN TABERSKI: This is actually the first podcast project that I ever made that was not my original idea. My first one was a podcast called “Missing Richard Simmons” about what happened to Richard Simmons when he stepped out of the spotlight in 2017. I did a couple others, including one last year called “Running from COPS.”
CHRIS HAYES: That's great, by the way.
DAN TABERSKI: Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: You check that out. But “Missing Richard Simmons” is really great, too, I should say. I've listened to both.
DAN TABERSKI: Good. Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: Wait, one second. Tell us what “Running from COPS” is, because it's really a great, important podcast.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. “Running from COPS” is basically an investigation into the show, reality show “COPS” and how it's influenced our perception of policing in America. It came from my own sort of ... I don't want to say obsession, but I estimate I've seen maybe 500 episodes of the show, of “COPS,” even before we started reporting the podcast.
CHRIS HAYES: That show. At the age of 11, that show would come on, and I thought, "How is this legal?"
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: I remember thinking it at the time. “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do...”
DAN TABERSKI: Yep. That's what's so fascinating about it.
CHRIS HAYES: It's like, "Wait a second."
DAN TABERSKI: It's like, "How are they doing this?"
CHRIS HAYES: "Wait. They're just blurring their faces. But this doesn't seem okay. This seems really exploitative and wrong."
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. Yeah, but also fascinating. And so we watched and analyzed 842 episodes of the show. It's been on for 30 years, and we found the people who were the quote-unquote "perps" who end up on the show. Why would they end up signing a release? Do they sign releases, and just sort of what does it do to policing in this country? So that was an amazing, amazing dive. I resurfaced with a real different perspective.
CHRIS HAYES: And then how did this, “The Line,” come about?
DAN TABERSKI: I was approached by Alex Gibney and Apple. It was going to be their first original podcast. It was sort of a combined project that they were going to do a filmed version of it, a documentary version of it, and then they wanted to do a podcast at the same time — not as a companion, but two sort of separately reported projects. So I just sort of spent a month going back into the case and just reading, trying to decide if I wanted to do it, and just became fascinated. The case was interesting in itself. I mean, just the facts alone and the sort of twists and turns were enough to go on, but I was actually more interested in the idea of the reactions to the story, in that basically there was two reactions or two poles.
On the one side is most people I know, "Eddie Gallagher's a monster. Eddie Gallagher is 100% a war criminal. He's a monster. Look at what he did." No sort of acknowledgement that it might be a really complicated situation when you're in the middle of clearing Mosul of ISIS, and all the things that go along with combat make it much more complex than just guilty or not guilty. So that's the one side. And then the other side was, not only is he not guilty, but people were saying, "Does it really matter if he did it to begin with? Does it really matter if the good guys cross the line?" I just found those two reactions both fascinating.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, and I would say on that, there's even a stronger version of the latter reaction, which is like, “He's a hero who has been sabotaged by his own government.” You know what I mean? That he is being persecuted for killing the bad guys the way that we want our warriors to kill them.
DAN TABERSKI: Yes, and that it's all about that we're sort of bothering him with the niggling details of how he kills the ISIS guys, even though that's why he was sent there, ostensibly. So yeah, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Which again comes back to this sort of point, which is one that you explore in the podcast and even the title of it, of ... I kept coming back to this idea about how a certain leftist and radical critique of the notion of war crimes and this sort of attempt to civilize or cleanse war of its brutality ends up in synthesis with a certain right-wing idea that war is war and warriors do what they have to do to protect the flock. They kind of converge on this same sort of point, which is that these rules are ridiculous. Then you have people operating in this space who really think the rules matter a lot, even though they themselves are like, "Yes, I kill for a living. That's what I do."
DAN TABERSKI: Right, and nobody's sort of acknowledging the possibility that maybe the rules, maybe the line, maybe sort of the things that we do to define the difference between right and wrong, it's not there because of the Geneva Conventions. That's a good reason, but it's also there to protect the mental and moral health of the people who have to do that fighting, that those rules are there so that they can live with what it is that we ask them to do as they're doing it.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. This is the notion of moral injury, which, there's lots of incredible research about how a huge driver of PTSD is not being on the receiving end of violence, but committing it, and that moral injury, which is the term for that, which is that people actually ... Humans don't like killing, and it's hard actually to get them to kill. There's this incredible study after World War II about the number of soldiers that don't fire their guns and that you have to create the conditions in which they can and essentially live with themselves.
DAN TABERSKI: Yes, it is a process. It is a process that takes a long time to get people to be able to do it, not just once, but to do it over and over. Of course, this was a huge experiment, going to the War on Terror, because we've been fighting for 20 years. That's what's been happening with the SEALs, is that yes, you can do it perhaps in World War II for six months deployment and then go back to your family, where maybe after three years, the war's over, and we all get back to normal. But what happens when you ask people to kill over and over for 20 years? What does that do to their moral health?
CHRIS HAYES: So let's talk about the case a little bit, just the details. The SEAL team that Gallagher is with is engaged in this really brutal close combat of clearing ISIS out of Mosul in ... Is it 2017? Is that right?
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. It's in 2017.
CHRIS HAYES: We have actually done a podcast on just a book about that fight.
DAN TABERSKI: Really?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, and just because it's some of the most brutal urban combat that's basically happened since World War II. It's like, I mean, block by block clearing, really, really, really brutal combat, right?
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, really intensely brutal and also mixed in with civilians. So it's not an empty city. It's got hundreds of thousands of people, of Iraqis, who live in Mosul. And then it's got a few thousand ISIS fighters who are controlling the city and are ostensibly holding it hostage. So you're not just fighting block by block. You can't just nuke the whole city. You have to be able to separate between who's the bad guy and who are the good guys, or at least who's being held hostage. It's very murky from the get-go.
CHRIS HAYES: So what happens on the day in question?
DAN TABERSKI: The day in question is May 3rd, 2017, and they do a signet airstrike on a safe house in Mosul, on the West Bank of Mosul, in Old West Mosul, where 10 ISIS fighters are hiding out. The Alpha platoon of SEAL Team 7 is fighting alongside the ERD, the Iraqi ERD, which is basically our partner force. They do a signet strike. Five of the men die. Four escape. One ISIS fighter is captured. We believe he's injured. He probably has blast lung. He has a wound to the leg, but he's alive. The Iraqi ERD bring him to the SEALs of Alpha platoon.
Eddie Gallagher's a medic. There's two other medics in the platoon. They begin to treat him and the helmet cam that is rolling ... Many of the SEALs wear helmet cams so they can record what they're doing if they want to, but the helmet cam gets turned off. So the last image we're left with is Eddie Gallagher kneeling over this ISIS fighter. Then the next image we see from that day is a still photograph of Eddie Gallagher with a hunting knife in one hand and the corpse of that ISIS fighter in the other. The SEALs in the platoon say that he stabbed that fighter and basically killed a prisoner of war. He denies it.
CHRIS HAYES: But the image we know exists, right? That's not debatable.
DAN TABERSKI: That is not debatable. Yeah, I've seen it. I've looked at it ad nauseum. It's pretty gruesome and hard to look at outside the context of war, even inside of the context of war, I'm sure. But it's particularly dehumanizing when you look at it from outside.
CHRIS HAYES: How did the allegations first start to emerge? And there's incredibly fascinating social dynamics among these guys, who are very, I think ... Let's say traditionally macho, very battle-hardened, very tight-knit, also really furious and freaked out by what they say they saw Gallagher do.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. I mean, it depends on who you believe in terms of how the allegations came to light. At least two of the men in the platoon say they told somebody right away. That they told the officer in charge right away what they say Gallagher had done and that nothing was done about it.
But basically what happens is that they get back to the states in September of 2017. Over the next several months, a group of the SEALs convince themselves over text messages that they need to go and tell somebody. They just keep banging on doors at the SEAL teams until somebody takes them seriously. Then NCIS takes over. It takes over from there. 19 of the 21 platoon members go in and speak with NCIS and tell them what they saw. Not all of them say they saw a stabbing. I believe there's three people who said they were eyewitnesses to the stabbing, but then it just balloons into this larger conversation about what else Gallagher was doing on that deployment as the chief of that platoon, what he was doing in terms of allegedly shooting civilians and basically trying to get his kill on.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Well, talk a little bit about that, about what their sort of conception of Gallagher is and what Gallagher's lawyer and the people who are defending him say was motivating this. I mean, right? Because at one level, you think to yourself ... I mean, just, again, as someone who saw the story from the periphery, right, it's a little like when a woman comes forward to accuse a famous person of a sexual assault, right?
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: My sort of baseline, particularly if it's someone who's fairly anonymous and has a lot to lose, my baseline is there's really nothing to be gained for this woman to come forward and make this accusation. It doesn't mean that the accusation is true. It just means that, as I evaluate how I think about this, the background context for me is that this person has risked a tremendous amount to make this accusation. That was the way that I felt about these SEALs in the platoon. It just seemed that, man, something happened or something was animating for them to come forward and to try to get someone to listen as long as they did. It wasn't like it immediately snowballed.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. I mean, I wasn't a believer of it in the beginning. After spending so much time on the case and talking to the people involved, I'm still extremely skeptical of the Gallagher and the Gallagher attorney argument that they made it all up, that these SEALs came out and basically made up these allegations against Eddie Gallagher, their chief, because he was pushing them too hard in combat, that he was making them do things that they didn't want to do, and that this was their revenge. The logic to it never quite holds up. It doesn't mean it's true, like you said, but I don't quite buy that.
There are enormous informer social penalties for doing what they do. I mean, it is absolutely unheard of to come and not only dime out on another SEAL, but to dime out on your chief and to have not just one, not just two, but seven testify against him in court. That's not even the people who have said things about him to NCIS. That is people who actually testified in court. It's pretty miraculous that it got that far. Anytime a community that insular and that self-protective and where loyalty is that important to them does something like that, I think you do need to take it seriously.
CHRIS HAYES: Talk a little bit about the picture that they end up portraying about Gallagher more broadly and his conduct in theater.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. I mean, when they arrived in Mosul, they all say that he was somebody that they really looked up to. They use the word “stud'' over and over. They really see him as a specimen of what a model SEAL should be in terms of, physically and courageously. This is his eighth deployment and his first as a chief.
CHRIS HAYES: He's a senior enlisted man in this platoon, right?
DAN TABERSKI: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: Talk a little bit about just, before continuing, that role in combat, because it's a very specific and I think important one to understand.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. So basically, a SEAL team is divided. There's officers and there's enlisted. A SEAL team basically has six platoons. In the platoon, there's a chief, who is the enlisted guy. That's Eddie Gallagher in this case. There's also an officer in charge. So there's sort of a dual system. The officer is obviously the more formal administrative one, but it is really the chief, the enlisted guy, the guy who has been doing the fighting and who rises to that level of leading the platoon. That is the one who is informally in charge of the behavior of those SEALs, I think it's fair to say.
CHRIS HAYES: So yeah, if you’ve seen “Ted Lasso,” I think that’s what it is ... If you’ve seen “Ted Lasso,” there’s Ted Lasso and then there’s his assistant coach. The assistant coach is kind of closer to the team and is the one that barks at them to do drills and get it on and off the field. In some ways, that's kind of the role of that chief petty officer.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, I think that’s a comparison, but I would add to that, that somebody like Gallagher in a platoon, especially he’s been doing it for that long, they become ... I mean, there’s only 2,500 SEALs, so he becomes sort of SEAL famous. There’s hero worship, for sure, going into this thing. And I will say, also with the teams, you will be amazed. We talked to over 50 SEALs and special operators for this and you will be amazed at how often you hear them use words related to family. They say, “I was raised by the teams,” or “I was brought up in the teams.” Their relationships are sincere and that role of the chief, yeah, that guy, he’s in charge.
CHRIS HAYES: Well and also, he's also fighting alongside you. He's in there. He's on the field, as it were, and to your point about eight deployments, again it's not World War II where people went and they saw a lot of combat for four years. Eight deployments, this is a group of people who have been in many different parts of the world. They might have been in really, really sticky situations, really terrifying situations over long iterated periods of time. I mean, years and years that these special operators have been deployed.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah. And for the most part, the guys in the platoon were much less experienced than Eddie Gallagher. Eddie Gallagher had been doing this for a long time. It’s not like working in a factory and someone knows how to operate the machine. It’s like somebody who knows how to keep alive in these situations. It is an important role and he had a breadth of experience that was above and beyond almost everybody in the platoon.
CHRIS HAYES: When you say he's a specimen, we should say that he is very like, I would say conventionally handsome. He's got this square jaw. He's in incredible shape. He very much looks like a movie version of a Navy SEAL for lack of a better description.
DAN TABERSKI: Short.
Sure. Yes, short also.
DAN TABERSKI: But yeah, for sure. Like he looks the part.
CHRIS HAYES: They get there and he’s sort of SEAL famous. Then what is the story you hear from them? You talk about this on the podcast. I forget which episode it is, but the change in the way they think of him.
DAN TABERSKI: The picture changes for them when they essentially get to Mosul. Many of them say that small things, like he starts separating himself from the group. Things like he starts stealing things from other platoon mates. But small things, like stuff from care packages or the magazine from their gun. And then it becomes more and more concerning where he isn’t even given a rifle. He’s trained as a sniper, but he’s not issued a rifle. He starts taking other people’s rifles so that he can snipe. And then, some of them say that it just felt like they became his sniper escort, where they would cart him around to different sniper perches around Mosul so that he could shoot and try to kill ISIS fighters. And then it becomes more that he’s also shooting civilians as well.
And that is where, obviously, it starts to get really hairy, in that it’s a situation where the SEALs in the platoon say that they feel like it is out of control, that they can’t stop his behavior. Nobody will listen to what they’re saying about his behavior. So then they find themselves in a situation where they feel the burden to try to mitigate his behavior informally, doing things like not giving him the air density cards that they would normally give a sniper to sort of dial in a shot. They don’t give it to him so that his shot won’t work. There’s accusations that they tampered with his gun. Doing things to try to keep him from shooting civilians, which is what some SEALs in the platoon say that he was doing.
And then the incident on May 3rd is the thing that really puts it over the edge. And it’s also a very up-close and personal interaction with an ISIS fighter, whereas they would be seeing them through their sniper scope, now, this fighter is here. They can see this person and he is a kid. He is a boy. He is a very young looking 17-year-old. And it just becomes way more personal and it just starts to, I think it’s fair to say, feel a lot more like murder.
CHRIS HAYES: Again, Gallagher denies this, so I want to just be clear, 100% about that, this is not ... What we're saying is not, “This is the truth of what happened.” This is the picture of what these men say happened. But just to put a little finer point on it, the picture that comes across is that something happens where he gets ... He develops a kind of compulsion to kill.
DAN TABERSKI : That is what they describe, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What they're describing — again, he denies this, but what they're describing is someone who is becoming kind of sickly sickly addicted to this to the point where it almost sounds like people intervening with a friend who’s an addict, like taking the drugs away. They're trying all these different ways to wean him or get him away from his compulsion.
DAN TABERSKI: Yes. And also, just to remind you, he’s the chief. So, as one SEAL put it to us, he said, “What were we supposed to do? Tackle him to the ground?” On the one hand, there are informal ways to do this, but he’s also in charge. He’s your boss. And so there’s only so much you can do in terms of stopping behavior that you think is wrong because he’s the one that you would report it to.
CHRIS HAYES: Tell me what the SEALs who say they saw directly what happened that day, what they say happened.
DAN TABERSKI: The ISIS fighter is lying on the ground. He’s about 17 years old. They think he has blast lung and a wound to the leg. Gallagher begins treating him. He’s trained as a medic and there’s two other medics on the scene. They do things like put a patent airway, a chest tube, to sort of de-inflate the lungs, to relieve pressure from the lungs. They bandage up his wounds. There are SEALs who say they saw Eddie Gallagher, after all of these treatments were done to stabilize the patient, they say that Eddie Gallagher took out a hunting knife. It’s a custom-made hunting knife with a three-inch fixed blade that he had specially made before he went out into Mosul. He ostensibly carried it around with him. And he took out that knife and stabbed that detainee twice in the neck. And then the prisoner died.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s video of the prisoner because there’s video of that GoPro and helmet cam. Before it gets turned off, you described, got this sort of wisp of a pubescent ... This is not, just to be clear, not that it would make it okay if this were, like, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to stab someone who’s captured. But just to be clear, this is essentially a kid who signed up to fight for ISIS for money, as best we can understand.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, and it’s hard to tell because we’re not convinced that we actually know who the person is. We narrowed it down to two. We couldn’t narrow it down to my satisfaction any further. But yeah, these are young, young people. And now, defenseless. In and out of consciousness. No weapon. Surrounded by Navy SEALs. So it’s not a situation where they’re in danger.
CHRIS HAYES: They say that they reported this immediately, that they had to knock on a bunch of doors. They come back from deployment. They're on this text chain. They eventually get someone to listen and this investigation starts. When does he get charged?
DAN TABERSKI: He’s ultimately arrested on September 11th of 2018. He’s actually at a traumatic brain injury clinic at the time, called the Intrepid Center. A lot of SEALs have issues like that after they get out of the teams. And he’s arrested in September of 2018.
CHRIS HAYES: At what point does he become this kind of cause celeb?
DAN TABERSKI: You know, that’s when his wife intervenes. They kept it on the down-low for a while and then basically his wife, Andrea Gallagher, who has a background in branding, decides that they are going to go public. She thinks that he’s not getting a fair shake, that the Navy is out to get him and to prosecute him and put him in prison as an example of, “Oh, look at us prosecuting war crimes.” And she goes public, and she basically goes public with conservative media and paints him as innocent, and also paints the SEALs that dimed out on him as disgruntled millennials, who say that they disagreed with his tactics, that he put them in danger and that this is their way for revenge.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s like this whole he's a tough older, they’re like snowflakes. It's so crazy because it's like these are Navy SEALs, but it’s inscribed, the same thing you hear about college professors teaching the young and the woke, a little bit. That's a little bit of the story she tells, which is that this is a hard, driven guy who is battle-hardened and driving them hard, which is his job as a warrior and they can’t take it. And this is how they get their revenge.
DAN TABERSKI: Yes. But it works. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense. He gets Bernie Kerik, who is a former Homeland Security nominee and a former New York City chief of police. He gets him on his side. He gets one of Donald Trump’s lawyers, becomes one of his lawyers. He gets heavy hitter attorneys because of this narrative. It really works in terms of getting the “Fox & Friends” and then the Trump world to pay attention to what is happening.
CHRIS HAYES: Peter Hegseth is another one who becomes a very outspoken advocate for him. He's a Princeton grad and veteran who was on “Fox & Friends.” Okay, so the trial's going forward. He becomes this very public case, right? There’s this very concerted effort to raise money and to raise awareness on his behalf as a railroaded victim of snowflakes, I guess.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, basically.
CHRIS HAYES: Then he goes to trial, and I want to talk about the trial. And something shocking happens at that trial. Let's talk about that right after we take this quick break.
This is not a civilian trial, right? That he’s facing. This is a court martial.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, this is a military trial, so it’s different. There’s not 12 people on the jury. There’s seven and they’re all military, and there’s actually one SEAL. So it’s like little differences, but in general, it has the texture of a trial.
CHRIS HAYES: Some of the SEALs who have made these complaints testify. And there's one star witness, or one witness who is called to the stand, and the expectation is that he will say that Gallagher killed this prisoner.
DAN TABERSKI: Yes. He had testified ... His name was Corey Scott, he was another medic in the platoon. He had made statements to NCIS multiple times and to investigators that he saw Gallagher stab that prisoner. And that was his story going forward. Multiple times. He got on the stand and he says, “Eddie Gallagher didn’t kill him. I killed him.” He says, “I put my thumb over the breathing tube and I’m the one who killed that prisoner, not Eddie Gallagher.”
CHRIS HAYES: Now he has never said this before.
DAN TABERSKI: He has never said it before publicly, for sure. He may have said it to his attorney, but as far as any legal documents go ... There was questions about, is he sort of dialing down his testimony before he gets on? But he’s called as a prosecution witness. They bring him up there and they think he’s going to say that Eddie Gallagher killed him.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, and they have reason to think that because he told investigators that. The other question is, did anyone else say that Corey Scott had been the person to kill this prisoner?
DAN TABERSKI: No. No, no.
CHRIS HAYES: This is like a straight-up legal drama moment. This doesn't really happen very often in trial. This is a shocking moment in the court.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, because normally, it would get to the point where if somebody changes their story, they’re not going to wait until they get up on the stand to do it. There’s multiple opportunities to get out of it before you are actually sitting there under oath.
CHRIS HAYES: And also, to implicate yourself on the stand.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, to implicate yourself on the stand. It’s pretty remarkable. There are lots of theories as to the veracity of what he said or why he would say it, but that’s what happened and it was an absolute shocker. Even Gallagher himself said he didn’t know it was going to happen.
CHRIS HAYES: What do we make of that?
DAN TABERSKI: Well, there’s potentially a couple things going on. One theory is that Corey Scott had spent many months, him and his attorney, trying to get testimonial immunity so that he could go on the stand and couldn’t be prosecuted for what he said. And that once he had that, he was free to say what he wanted. So that could be because he had already known that he killed that prisoner and he just wanted to be able to get on the stand and say it and that was the only way he could do it, or he was trying to get testimony immunity so that he could protect his chief and say that, “I killed him, he didn’t kill him, and you can’t prosecute me.”
CHRIS HAYES: And you can't prosecute me. Right, so there's two interpretations: he's confessing in reality and has sort of somewhat brilliantly steered things such that he could confess and tell the truth, exculpate his chief and also not be prosecuted.
DAN TABERSKI: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: The other theory is that he’s lying to protect his chief, and again, has either steered himself into this position or someone has gotten to him to convince him to do this late.
DAN TABERSKI: Correct. And we do know that Corey Scott did go and see Gallagher. Remember, Corey Scott was going to be a prosecution witness. He and Gallagher are not buddy-buddy. It is an adversarial relationship. We do know that he went to see Gallagher when he was in the brig and it was a 20-minute meeting with him and their attorneys. Nobody knows what was said besides them. But something else to remember, which makes it even more confounding, is that Corey Scott testified to all of this, saying that he killed him, not Eddie Gallagher. Corey Scott also said that Eddie Gallagher 100 percent stabbed that detainee. Which doesn’t protect his chief. Which implicates his chief. So it becomes complicated in terms of trying to suss out what he was doing there.
CHRIS HAYES: Wait, you're saying in the same testimony, he says that the stabbing wasn't the cause of death because Corey had already killed him, but that he did stab him.
DAN TABERSKI: His testimony was that Eddie Gallagher stabbed that detainee. “Before that detainee died, I put my thumb over the breathing tube and that is what killed him.” And to confound it further, which shows how complicated these military situations are, to confound it further, he says he did it because he was protecting that detainee from what would have happened to him when he woke up, which is the Iraqi ERD, our partner forces who have been documented war criminals and whom we were working with anyways, would have killed him. That the SEALs have been sharing a building with the Iraqi ERD and they could hear the torture at night. They could see people go in and not come out. They would hear them being electrocuted, ISIS prisoners being electrocuted by the Iraqi ERD.
So Corey Scott knew that this is most likely what would have happened to him anyways. And so, A, you could look at it as a mercy killing, but B, you could also look at it as the irony is just so profound that Corey Scott would have been responsible for putting his chief in prison for a war crime that, ostensibly, would have happened anyways a few hours later by the people that we were working with. And that is where the conversation about the line comes in. It’s like, how do you know what to do in that situation? How do you know what to do?
CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear, Scott says that Gallagher stabs him first and then puts the finger over the breathing tube?
DAN TABERSKI: Correct.
CHRIS HAYES: And so he is the cause of death, but that Gallagher had stabbed him, A, and B, that his motivation for this was not some sick thrill, but was in the moment, this guy is an incredibly wounded kid who is about to get transferred over to essentially the torture cops next door, who are gonna electrocute him.
DAN TABERSKI: And that that was the decision he made in the moment. It’s chilling. There are so many feelings about the trial and who’s right and who’s wrong that all I can do at that part of the story is feel for Corey Scott and just how confounding that crossroads was for him.
CHRIS HAYES: And we don’t have reason to think that Scott was viewed by members of his platoon the way Gallagher was, like this was the guy that was going around, you know, that others saw as a loose cannon or with a real bloodthirst.
DAN TABERSKI: Corey Scott? Absolutely not, no.
CHRIS HAYES: So Gallagher was acquitted of the murder charge.
DAN TABERSKI: Correct. There’s seven charges. He’s acquitted of stabbing the detainee, he’s acquitted of the attempted murder of two separate cases of shooting civilians.
CHRIS HAYES: Which, by the way, are a little less conclusive. You don’t have dramatic testimony that exculpates him there. They just don’t find him guilty.
DAN TABERSKI: No, the testimony against Gallagher there is quite dramatic, but in my opinion, there’s just not enough evidence. There’s no physical evidence. There’s no bodies. It’s their word against his and so those were definitely on shakier legal ground, those charges.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. But he is convicted of some charges.
DAN TABERSKI: He is convicted of one charge: taking a photograph with a corpse. That I believe falls into the umbrella of conduct unbecoming.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. And then, what happens afterwards?
DAN TABERSKI: He goes and gets a tattoo of his wife’s face in front of an American flag on his forearm. He moves on to life as a post-SEAL trying to decide how he’s gonna move forward.
CHRIS HAYES: But then he ends up getting pardoned.
DAN TABERSKI: This is so interesting. Eddie Gallagher wasn’t pardoned. After he was declared guilty, his sentence was a little bit of prison time, time served, and it was a reduction in rank. What Trump did was not reverse the guilty charge. The guilty charge still stands. What Trump did was reverse the sentencing and reinstate his chiefiniess.
CHRIS HAYES: The key thing, though, is the reinstatement, right? He had lost his trident. He had been demoted, essentially. Obviously, in the world of the SEAL famous, in this world, that matters tremendously.
DAN TABERSKI: It matters tremendously, although I find it interesting because it was such a scorched earth media campaign that they did in order to save him in the first place that I don’t feel that the SEALs ... Eddie Gallagher doesn’t really have sort of a traditional place in the SEALs anymore, I think it’s fair to say. I think some SEALs support him and I think many, many don’t.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, how can you not be a polarizing figure after this whole thing?
DAN TABERSKI: 100 percent. And he will be that for the rest of his life. But, you know, it also had to do with the pride of saying that he was a SEAL and that he was a SEAL chief, and it also has to do with basics, like reduction of rank would have cost him a lot of money.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, right. But then the reinstatement causes another reaction with the Secretary of the Navy.
DAN TABERSKI: Yeah, the Secretary of the Navy says, “Oh, wait a minute,” and then ... Basically, it’s all a bunch of little moves of people trying to do the drastic, dramatic things that Trump wants to do in a milder, more conforming sort of way, which, of course, drives Trump crazy. The Secretary of the Navy quits. Or, I don’t know if he was fired. I don’t know, I’m sure he’s...
CHRIS HAYES: Well, he issues a letter of resignation ... Whatever he does. He might be fired, but he issues a letter saying, "Here's—" basically saying this was messed up.
DAN TABERSKI: 100 percent. Trump intervened in that case earlier when he basically got Eddie Gallagher let out of the brig because his wife went on “Fox & Friends” and said, “Let my husband out of the brig. He’s innocent.” Trump tweeted that he’s released from the brig and then it just created this whole atmosphere where everybody who was a potential juror, the prosecution, the defense, everybody knew that Trump was watching. You can’t deny that that would change the tenor of a trial.
CHRIS HAYES: What was your most surprising thing that you came away from this very, very intense and immersive reporting project with?
DAN TABERSKI: You know, we talked to dozens and dozens of SEALs for this project and I just think you can’t underestimate the amount of moral stress and strain that they have been enduring over the past 20 years. And part of that is frustrating on another level because it’s all basically happening in secret, that basically after 9/11, we decided that we were going to fight wars, on the whole, covertly. And that the SEALs and other special operators were going to become the tip of the spear. And they were sent out on manhunting missions to get members of Al Qaeda and enemy Iraqis and enemy combatants. And, as one SEAL put it, that they were killing people so close you could smell their bad breath before they did it.
It is a different kind of warfare than World War II. It is not batallions, it is not front lines, it is not traditional. And I think that the military is operating on the assumption that these guys can kill like this for years and years and years and not have it affect them. I think it very clearly is.
And then the second thing that I think was shocking to me is that we were able to get unredacted courtroom audio of the trial. What my big takeaway from that trial was how culpable the government was and we, as the people who send these guys to fight, how part of a system we are in terms of greying the lines, in terms of blurring the lines under which they fight. For example, they weren’t supposed to be in combat in the first place. They were sent under the AAA program. They call it AAA — advise, assist and accompany. So basically it’s like, “We’re going the SEALs over to help them in Mosul but they’re not fighting in combat, they’re just there to advise.”
These guys were in combat every day. These guys were in combat every day and we learned this from the trial, from the testimony of people who were organizing that fight. They were supposed to maintain a certain distance from the front lines. They would regularly turn their GPS trackers off so that they could get closer. They were in combat constantly and I find that, A, it’s duplicitous, but B, it’s also very frustrating to know that people are experiencing these things and not receiving public support that you would normally expect if we were in World War II, and like keep the home fires burning. It’s all happening in secret. And so they’re actually not getting support from the public that they would ostensibly need.
And the other thing is that fact that we were working with war criminals, that we had decided to work with the Iraqi ERD. The United States had been blacklisted by the Leahy legislation in 2015 from working with the Iraqi ERDs because of the war crimes that they have been documented committing. And we had decided to work with them anyway to clear Mosul. That may have been a good thing and ISIS was worse than working with the Iraqi ERD, but I think you can’t underestimate how confusing that is to be working, sharing a building with war criminals, and it’s okay for them and it’s not okay for you. You can see how that would get confusing. So just our responsibility in it, I think, was pretty eye opening for me.
CHRIS HAYES: Dan Taberski hosts the investigative miniseries podcast, “The Line,” which you should go just check out right now. We sort of talked about it in the topic, but hearing the voices of these people, hearing the reporting, hearing the audio from the trial is all really great. It's an incredibly well done piece of work. Dan, thank you so much.
DAN TABERSKI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, great thanks to Dan Taberski. The podcast is called “The Line.” You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.
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