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US Special Ops chief says leadership shortcomings contributed to 'conditions for unacceptable conduct'

Posted January 28, 2020 6:58 p.m. EST

— The Pentagon is acknowledging that leadership failures within the US special operations community helped foster "conditions for unacceptable conduct," according to a new report released Tuesday, which comes on the heels of several high-profile scandals and disciplinary cases involving members of the elite units.

Gen. Richard Clarke, the head of Special Operations Command, highlighted those concerns in a memo to service members that accompanied the 71-page report documenting the initial findings of a comprehensive ethics review he ordered last August following a flurry of incidents, including allegations of sexual assault and cocaine use against Navy SEAL team members.

"The bottom line is that we have disproportionately focused on SOF employment and mission accomplishment at the expense of the training and development of our force," he wrote in the memo.

"In some cases, this imbalance has set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline and accountability," Clarke added.

The release of the report and memo comes as units have struggled to deal with the fallout from several controversial disciplinary cases, including the one involving former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was convicted of taking a photo with a dead ISIS prisoner but later allowed to retire honorably after President Donald Trump personally intervened.

While discussing the report during a media roundtable Tuesday, Clarke insisted that "the incredible women and men of SOF {special operations forces} do not have a systemic ethical behavior problem."

However, the report noted that the review team had "uncovered not only potential cracks in the SOF foundations at the individual and team level, but also through the chain of command."

One underlying theme of the report is that forces are disproportionately focused on deploying and conducting missions, which has contributed to lapses in other key areas, including leadership development and overall discipline.

"We did find that certain aspects of our culture have, at times, set conditions favorable for inappropriate behavior," Clarke said Tuesday. "Nearly twenty years of continuous conflict have imbalanced that culture to favor force employment and mission accomplishment over the routine activities that ensure leadership, accountability, and discipline."

"This is a problem, and our review team recommended more than a dozen ways to address it," he added. "Most importantly, we need to improve our leader development programs and improve accountability in our training and management processes."

The review itself was conducted over a span of several months.

Members of the review team visited several troop locations, including those where candidates may be initially selected for special operations forces units during their entry-level training. Their observations led to some troubling conclusions.

"Those programs possibly foster an unhealthy sense of entitlement as a result of special treatment and facilities," the review said.

More broadly, the report noted issues within individual units where commanders and senior enlisted leaders are responsible for training, mentoring and holding troops accountable.

"This did not appear to be happening as regularly as it should -- or at least with a level of professionalism required to maintain good order, discipline and accountability," it said.

Clarke's decision to initiate the comprehensive review came as concerns about ethical shortfalls within the special operations community reached a fever pitch.

In July 2019, the top US Navy SEAL sent a blistering letter to the force, writing in boldface type, "We have a problem," following several high-profile incidents of alleged misbehavior by the elite service members.

Although Rear Adm. Collin Green, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, did not mention specific incidents, the letter came on the heels of an entire SEAL team being sent home from Iraq following allegations of drinking alcohol during their downtime -- which is against regulations-- and of sexual assault.

In a separate case, an internal Navy investigation found members of SEAL Team 10 allegedly abused cocaine and other illicit substances while they were stationed in Virginia. The members were subsequently disciplined.

Those incidents coincided with multiple high-profile disciplinary cases that also rocked the special operations community.

In early July, a military court decided that Gallagher, a onetime member of SEAL Team 7, would be demoted in rank and have his pay reduced for posing for a photo with the body of an ISIS prisoner while he was serving in Iraq.

Another SEAL had been sentenced in June for his role in the 2017 death of Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, a Green Beret, in Bamako, Mali.

But Gallagher's case gained national attention after Trump intervened and reversed the court's ruling in a move that angered military officials. Gallagher was ultimately allowed to keep his Trident Pin, which is worn by Navy SEALs, awarded following their completion of an intense qualification course, and symbolizes membership in the elite community of service members.

Gallagher retired on November 30 as planned, according to several Navy officials. His retirement followed standard practice for enlisted sailors with 20 or more years of service. He has been transferred to the "fleet reserve," a list of personnel who can be potentially called back to active duty in a national crisis.

Some military officials have questioned whether these incidents, such as Gallagher's case, occurred because of the pressures special operations forces have been under for the last nearly two decades, with constant deployments on the most dangerous missions.

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