Navy Secretary Slams Captain Of COVID-19 Stricken Carrier, Media In Surprise Visit To Ship (Updated)
The Navy's top civilian also chastised the crew for its display of support for Captain Crozier as he left the ship after he was fired.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly made a surprise visit to the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is presently docked in Guam amid a major outbreak of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus on board, this weekend and gave a terse speech regarding the firing of the ship's former commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier. Last week, a letter from Crozier, in which he pleaded with his superiors to allow the bulk of the crew to leave the ship to stem the spread of the virus, leaked to the press, which subsequently led to Modly relieving him of his command. Videos emerged afterward of the carrier's crew giving the captain, who has now reportedly contracted the virus himself, a hero's sendoff.
Reuters was first to report that Modly had flown out to Guam to visit the carrier and make the speech, in which Modly reportedly suggested Crozier's actions had been "stupid." Vice Adm. Bill Merz, the commanding officer of the U.S. 7th Fleet, a top Navy headquarters in Japan that oversees operations in the Western Pacific, also visited the ship.
The Navy's top civilian official said that the captain may have been either "too naive or too stupid" to run the ship because of his decision to send the letter in an unclassified format to a large number of recipients, which made it easier to leak to the press, according to the transcript now circulating online.
The Navy's official justification for relieving Crozier was a loss of confidence in his ability to command as a result of the letter, which Modly has said was unnecessarily alarmist, and over how it was disseminated, allowing granular details about Theodore Roosevelt's readiness to become publicly known, including to America's adversaries. The service has not directly accused the captain of publicly releasing the letter himself.
"If he didn't think, in my opinion, that this information wasn't going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this," Modly said, according to the transcript, that a member of Theodore Roosevelt's crew reportedly made from a recording of the speech, which was carried over the ship's intercom system. "The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that's a serious violation of the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice], which you are all familiar with."
Modly did not elaborate on what parts of the UCMJ, the U.S. military's internal justice system, Crozier might have violated through his actions. It is a serious accusation that implies what the captain did may not only warrant on-judicial disciplinary action, but also criminal charges.
The Acting Secretary of the Navy also slammed the media and chastised the crew for its display of support for Crozier as he left the ship after being relieved.
"It was betrayal [what Crozier did]. And I can tell you one other thing: because he did that he put it in the public's forum and it's now become a big controversy in Washington. D.C. and across the country. About a martyr CO [commanding officer] who wasn't getting the help he needed therefore had to go through the Chain of Command, a chain of command which includes the media," Modly said according to the transcript. "The media has an agenda and the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit and I'm sorry that's the way the country is now but it's the truth and so they use it to divide us and use it to embarrass the Navy. They use it to embarrass you."
"So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that," Modly added, after talking about the burden the letter had also put on authorities Guam's territorial authorities. "I understand you love the guy. It's good that you love him. But you're not required to love him."
You can read the full purported transcript below:
Crozier had sent his letter on Mar. 30, 2020, in which he proposed moving 90 percent of the carrier's crew of more than 4,000 personnel off the ship and into quarantine ashore to help stem the spread of the virus. "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," the Theodore Roosevelt's former captain wrote. "If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our Sailors."
There have been a number of other reports suggesting that the U.S. military response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven. There is clearly an ongoing debate across the services about how to balance maintaining readiness to respond to potential crises with taking steps to protect personnel from the virus.
After Crozier's letter became public, Modly said the captain had mischaracterized the situation on the ship in his missive, which you can read more about in this past War Zone piece, and that things were not as serious as he made them out to be. The Acting Secretary of the Navy has also accused the Theodore Roosevelt's former commanding officer of not expressing his concerns to him directly when offered the chance in the days before the letter went out.
As of Apr. 5, the Navy said it had tested approximately 50 percent of the Theodore Roosevelt's crew and that there were 155 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Crozier himself has now reportedly contracted the virus, as well.
It's unclear how many more sailors may be displaying symptoms. There is also substantial evidence that individuals infected with the virus may be asymptomatic for weeks, but still may be able to transmit it to others. In addition, Crozier's letter specifically noted that a number of individuals who initially tested negative later tested positive, underscoring who rapidly the coronavirus can spread among groups working and living in close quarters, such as on a warship. This is an issue that The War Zone explored in detail after the first reports of COVID-19 cases aboard Theodore Roosevelt emerged in March.
The Navy's plan was to have moved approximately 2,700 personnel off the carrier and into hotels or other facilities on Guam for quarantine by Apr. 3. The service failed to meet that goal. There is also no indication that there are plans to follow through with Crozier's proposal to leave just 10 percent of the crew on the ship to perform essential functions, including operating and maintaining the carrier's two nuclear reactors and providing security.
Whether Acting Secretary Modly was right to relieve Crozier of his command so quickly or not, and do so amid the ongoing outbreak onboard the ship before completing a formal investigation into his actions, his decision has prompted a massive backlash, including among former military officials and politicians. Just days ago, Modly told The Washington Post's David Ignatius that his decision was, at least in part, driven by a fear that President Donald Trump would insert himself into the process, making it even more politicized. Modly's immediate predecessor, Richard Spencer, had gotten pushed out in a convoluted series of events that followed Trump's controversial decision to pardon Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who had been accused of war crimes.
"I didn’t want that to happen again," Modly explained to Ignatius. "I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive... If I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn’t taking action itself."
Trump has publicly expressed his support for Modly's decision. Other politicians have already called for investigations and hearings into the Navy's decision. For its part, the service says it is investigating Crozier's conduct and well as the "command climate" across units assigned to its Pacific Fleet.
If nothing else, the Acting Secretary of the Navy's speech on board the Theodore Roosevelt looks set to further inflame and politicize the debacle as the service continues to try to fight the COVID-19 outbreak among the carrier's crew and get the ship back to an operational state.
We will update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 1:05pm EST:
Listen to the entire speech for yourself here.
The Navy has issued an official response, stating that the transcript is not official and that Modly's remarks were "intended to be private," but not explicitly denying the transcript's content or that of the audio that is now available online.
UPDATE: 1:40pm EST:
Acting Secretary of the Navy Modly has issued his own statement regarding the speech, which he says he stands behind. It's hard to see Modly's speech, and the idea that he expected it to remain "private," as hypocritical given what he has said about Crozier's letter and its contents.
UPDATE: 2:30pm EST:
The Navy has released the latest details about the COVID-19 cases among Theodore Roosevelt's crew. The service says it has now tested 61 percent of the crew and that there are 173 confirmed cases, none of which have so far required hospitalization. In addition, 1,999 members of the crew are now in lodging ashore.
UPDATE: 4:40pm EST:
A growing number of members of Congress are calling for Modly to resign or for the Trump Administration to fire him. This includes Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and a retired Navy officer and Representative Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan who recently left the Republican party.
An increasing number of lawmakers are also expressing more general criticism of Modly. This includes statements from Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and a retired Marine, Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.
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