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Pentagon investigates handling of unspecified war crimes, some see 'fishing expedition'

The Pentagon Inspector General told top military officials about the probe five days after President Biden was sworn into office.

Updated: April 1, 2021 - 11:52am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Pentagon in January launched a wide-ranging investigation into two major U.S. military commands to determine whether their leaders properly handled reports of unspecified war crimes by American forces.

The Pentagon Inspector General informed top military officials about the investigation in a memo dated five days after President Biden was sworn into office. The Jan. 25 memo does not mention specific war crimes nor suspected crimes; but states that U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both based in Tampa, Florida, are subjects of the inquiry. 

The probe will investigate how CENTCOM and SOCOM enacted programs "to reduce potential law of war violations when conducting operations," states the memo signed by Michael J. Roark, Deputy Inspector General for Evaluations. "We will also determine whether potential USCENTCOM and USSOCOM law of war violations were reported and reviewed in accordance with DoD policy."

Both commands have played a significant role in recent conflicts around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  

A SOCOM spokesman, Ken McGraw, directed Just the News to the Pentagon Inspector General for questions regarding the status and scope of the investigation. The IG's office did not respond to inquiries.

Others within the military community expressed concerns about the inquiry.

"This is a fishing expedition to further drive the reputation of the military into the mud," said former CENTCOM officer Wolf Wagner, who served three tours in Iraq. "They want to re-litigate anything they thought was a war crime."

Genuine violations should be prosecuted, noted Wagner and others, including one Navy veteran who in civilian life is a lawyer on high profile cases.

"When you have a legitimate war crime, that absolutely has to be investigated and taken care of, but in a way that is focused on justice," said Timothy Parlatore, who represented now-retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher in the war crimes case that he was acquitted of. 

"The vast majority of the Special Operations community are out there doing the right thing," Parlatore said. "A lot of allegations of war crimes are overblown by the enemy and by some in the media. I hope this won't cause more problems than is necessary."

The latter point is sparking concern among active duty service members who spoke to Just the News. The service members could not use their names for publication because they are not authorized to speak to the media; but they said they would not want to endure combat only to later run afoul of some investigative committee.

The fears apply not just to the future, but also to the past, the former CENTCOM officer said.

"Anybody who fought any battle in Iraq and Afghanistan has to worry about whether they are going to be investigated," Wagner said. "It's second guessing the soldiers."

American fighters also will be maneuvered into second guessing themselves, Parlatore said.

"It makes people hesitate in a way that will make them afraid to make decisions," he said. "It's dangerous."

The probe initially was scheduled to take place at the big commands' headquarters in Tampa; and also at sites in Kuwait and Afghanistan. The subjects included Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve, and Joint Special Operations Command. But the IG signaled that the investigation might stretch elsewhere.

"We may identify additional organizations and locations during the evaluation," wrote Roark in the Jan. 25 memo. The scope, too, might change: "We may revise the objective as the evaluation proceeds, and we will consider suggestions from management for additional or revised objectives."

This raises the specter of revisiting old cases, observers said – and of bringing about new quagmires.

"The problem with looking into alleged war crimes is there usually is a lack of evidence of these things." Parlatore said. "But there is significant motivation for the enemy to present information that will have our people jammed up."

The IG memo did not set an end-date for the inquiry.

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