Sunday, March 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, March 4, 2001

Pressure, politics play out in sub inquiry

Canceled training exercise allowed civilian tour of sub
A Tribute to the Missing
Previous stories

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

The rare court of inquiry scheduled to begin tomorrow at Pearl Harbor, in which the captain of the submarine USS Greeneville, the executive officer and the officer of the deck will face intense scrutiny of their actions in the Feb. 9 collision with the Ehime Maru, carries with it the potential to make reputations and ruin careers.

The Navy insists that such panels are dispassionate tools used to investigate major accidents in front of a neutral panel of high-ranking officers.

The reality is that they can become high-stakes theater, played out in front of a background of politics and outside pressures.

"Experience teaches that legal voyages that begin on a glassy sea can turn tempestuous," said Eugene Fidell, a former Coast Guard lawyer and president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington. "This is quite a big deal. The Navy doesn’t hold these every Monday and Thursday. There are probably going to be moments that will be shoot-’em-up trial scenes because there are tremendous stakes involved for everybody."

Perhaps no other naval court of inquiry has generated as much international interest as the investigation of the collision between the Greeneville and the Ehime Maru, the 174-foot ship used to train young Japanese fishermen from Ehime prefecture.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has accepted the Navy’s offer to provide an adviser and is sending its chief of staff to Pearl Harbor’s Trial Services Office. Families of people aboard both the Greeneville and Ehime Maru have asked to attend.

And the courtroom’s 55 seats cannot possibly accommodate the crush of Mainland, Hawaii and Japanese journalists asking to get in.

That kind of pressure can affect everyone involved in courts of inquiry — whether it’s the president of the court, the lawyers or the "parties to the inquiry," the Navy’s term for the people at the center of the investigation, said Miles Harvey, a retired lawyer from Coronado, Calif.

Has been there before

In 1968, Harvey represented the captain of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering ship that was attacked and seized off the coast of North Korea. One crewman died in the attack. The 82 who survived were beaten by the North Koreans and held in captivity for 11 months.

When it was over, Cmdr. Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher stood before a Navy court of inquiry, which affected the careers of many of the people involved, Harvey said.

The Pueblo case divided the Navy community, Harvey said. Did Bucher do his best to save his men or was he a coward for surrendering his ship?

While the Pueblo was in North Korean hands, Harvey met with the chief of naval operations and the vice chief of naval operations and was amazed that even the Navy’s two top admirals couldn’t agree.

"They were arguing violently over whether Bucher was a traitor," Harvey said. "A lot of senior officers had this, the captain must go down with his ship’ mentality. A lot of others thought he did everything he could."

The five admirals sitting on the Pueblo’s court of inquiry never showed bias, Harvey said. The perception in the Navy, though, was that they would be shunned if they recommended anything less than a court-martial, Harvey said.

The court did end with a recommendation for a court-martial. But the secretary of the Navy disagreed and said that Bucher had suffered enough.

Bucher continued his Navy career but was never promoted to captain. Harvey, a commander in the naval reserve, also was turned down for promotion.

Someone at the promotion board told Harvey that one of the members had said: "That’s the SOB who got that traitor Bucher off."

When he heard about the Greeneville court of inquiry at his home in Poway, Calif., Bucher, 73, immediately thought it was the right way to investigate the crash. But he worried that other pressures might sway the outcome.

"I thought, Jesus, they have a real problem,’ " Bucher said. "Done properly, a court of inquiry is the apt tool to look into what happened. Unfortunately, politics sometimes play a role."

Still disappointed

After 33 years, Bucher remains disappointed that the Pueblo’s court of inquiry didn’t look at broader issues in the Navy, such as incomplete intelligence reports that might have prevented his ship from being seized.

"These courts of inquiry are important, but they should be done in a way that helps the Navy understand the nature of the problem and to help assure it doesn’t happen again," Bucher said. "The court of inquiry had an opportunity to do a lot of good. · At the end of it, I was disappointed at how it turned out."

Six months before the Pueblo incident, Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states. Thirty-four U.S. sailors aboard the Liberty died and 171 were wounded.

"We were never told about the communications problems and other things that occurred with the USS Liberty," Bucher said. "That in itself was just criminal. Instead, the court of inquiry just focused on the actions of me and my crew."

For the survivors of the Liberty, memories of the court of inquiry that looked into the attack on their ship are never far away.

They believe the desire to preserve U.S.-Israeli relations prevented a thorough investigation.

The president of the court requested written statements by 65 crewmen that never ended up in the court’s final report, they say. A statement by the officer of the deck also never made it into the report.

"If the USS Greeneville investigation takes the path followed by the USS Liberty attack, the truth will not be known," said Joe Meadors, a signalman aboard the Liberty who is now vice president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association.

"Thirty-four years later," said Liberty crewman John Hrankowski, "and we are still trying to tell our story."

John Jenkins, former Judge Advocate General for the Navy and now senior associate dean of the George Washington Law School, maintains that courts of inquiry are not affected by politics.

Even when lawyers become adversarial, the proceedings remain dignified and the courts stay focused on their mandate as "a fact-finding body," he said.

Fidell expects much more out of the Greeneville court of inquiry.

The Greeneville was practicing a "main emergency ballast blow" with 16 civilians on board when it shot out of the ocean and crashed into the Ehime Maru nine miles south of Diamond Head. Two civilians were at the sub’s controls, under the supervision of Navy personnel.

'Best lawyers in the Navy'

Nine people from the Ehime Maru — including four teenage boys — remain missing and are presumed dead.

Charles Gittins, the civilian lawyer representing the Greeneville’s captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, has a high-profile reputation in military cases. Waddle’s Navy-appointed lawyer, Cmdr. Jennifer Herold, "is no slouch, either," Fidell said. "This case will involve the best lawyers in the Navy."

The president of the court, Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, may also play a strong role. Nathman has a reputation for outspoken independence "and may well need to use a firm hand on the tiller," Fidell said.

For everyone involved — the three officers at the center of the investigation, the lawyers and the court members — "careers can be made and lost," Fidell said.

"This is a high-profile piece of litigation," he said. "If you stumble, there is no safety net."

Harvey, and many others, hope the court of inquiry stays focused on finding out exactly what caused the Greeneville to crash into the Ehime Maru.

"Nine lives were lost and a U.S. submarine destroyed the commercial ship of a foreign nation," Harvey said. "Somebody’s got a lot of answering to do. The question is: What will be the answers?"

Dan Nakaso can be reached by phone at 525-8085, or by e-mail at

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