Sub inquiry leaves unanswered questions

Critics say Navy hasn't examined role of civilians on board and is being too lenient on Cmdr. Waddle.

As far as the United States Navy is concerned, the case involving one of its submarines and a Japanese fishing trawler is closed. The accident has been investigated, the punishment meted out, the apologies formally given.

But to many military officers and legal experts, the full story behind the collision of the USS Greeneville and the Ehime Maru in February has not been told.

The role of the 16 civilian VIPs on board at the time has not been fully explored, critics say. The "command climate" created by officers higher up the chain of command hasn't been acknowledged as a possible reason for the accident. And the severity of the sub skipper's punishment - especially when compared with the way enlisted men often are treated - raises questions about the equity of the military justice system.

There has been no criticism of the way Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the former commanding officer of the nuclear attack sub Greeneville, has conducted himself since the accident that took nine lives in the waters off Hawaii. He has apologized, accepted responsibility, shown sensitivity to the families of the Japanese victims, and acknowledged that his naval career is over.

"Waddle stood up like a man and took his medicine, and he should have because he's the guy," says Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy captain who commanded four warships, including the USS Iowa. "But he wasn't the only one who should have been standing up there in the dock."

There are other questions that need to be asked, says Captain Seaquist. "How did those [civilians] get on board? Why did he feel it was important to get them back to port quickly, that they were so important that he would take his ship to sea on a day [when] he didn't have any training, that he would take his ship to sea without his whole crew, that they would man the watch stations without all the qualified crew in the right places?"

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Thomas Fargo noted such failings when he cited Waddle for "dereliction of duty" and "negligently hazarding a vessel," serious violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Admiral Fargo issued Waddle a letter of reprimand and removed him from command. He ordered him to forfeit a month's pay over two months, but suspended that punishment for six months, by which time Waddle is expected to retire from the Navy with full benefits and an honorable discharge.

Fargo ordered lesser punishments for several of Waddle's subordinates and recommended that Capt. Robert Brandhuber, the chief of staff of the Pacific Fleet submarine force who was escorting the civilians, be admonished for not speaking up when he believed the submarine was preparing to surface too quickly.

It is the role of the civilians and the senior officers (active duty and retired) who organized the VIP cruise that has raised many questions.

"The fact is, we have an incomplete investigation," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Alexandria, Va.

"There were 16 eyewitnesses, most if not all of whom were jammed into the control room, and I don't understand how you can do a proper investigation or make any judgments as to disciplinary action without having heard all the material witnesses....

"There are certainly aspects of the VIP program that strike me as having been doubtful," adds Mr. Fidell. He cites an instance last year when 12,000 civilians, including the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and other questionable "VIPs," were transported out to aircraft carriers at government expense.

Other critics note that Waddle's punishment, though it ended his naval career, left his retirement benefits intact. (Fargo could have cited the skipper for criminal behavior and ordered a court-martial.) Waddle reportedly has had several job offers already.

"I've got a lot of [military] clients who've done far less than [Waddle] has, and they're in jail," says Philip Cave, a former naval officer and judge advocate general lawyer who now practices privately in Alexandria, Va. "Most of them are enlisted people."

The Greeneville case also raises broader questions about the accountability of command, especially when accidental loss of life is involved. In recent years, there have been several cases in which US naval vessels were found responsible, but no one was court-martialed.

In 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake, killing 290 people. In 1992, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga accidentally fired at a Turkish destroyer, killing five. Last year, 17 sailors died when the destroyer USS Cole failed to prevent a suicide bombing in Yemen. In none of those cases was the ship's captain court-martialed.

But Fidell notes that other countries have issued courts-martial in similar situations. For example, the British guided-missile frigate HMS Grafton ran aground in a Norwegian fjord last year. The commanding officer and navigator were convicted by court-martial in March and sentenced to be reprimanded.

"Perhaps the lesson is that in a high-tech world where there is instantaneous communication, where every move you make is governed by some instruction or regulation, and where you've got back-seat drivers on shore all the time, it's no longer the loneliness of command, it's corporate command," says Fidell. "And with corporate command, I guess, comes some duty to adjust long-standing notions of how you sanction people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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