Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, is expected to announce today that he will not lodge criminal charges against Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the skipper of the USS Greeneville, for the collision between the submarine and a Japanese fishing vessel.
Instead, Pentagon officials say, Fargo will accept most of the recommendations of a court of inquiry held last month. In line with them, Fargo will order Waddle to stand before him this morning in an administrative disciplinary hearing, known as an admiral's mast. There, he will hand Waddle a career-ending letter of reprimand. He also could give Waddle 30 days house arrest, 60 days restricted movement and loss of one month's pay. Waddle is not expected to serve any time in prison.
Waddle, 41, has the right to ask for a court-martial, where his lawyer could cross-examine witnesses, but he has said he would accept a reprimand and resign. His lawyer, Charles Gittins, said Waddle has had several job offers in the private sector. If Waddle is allowed to stay in the Navy until May 27, the 20th anniversary of his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, he will receive a pension of half his base salary of approximately $67,000. But that is far less than he might have received if he stayed in and rose, as once seemed his destiny, to the rank of admiral.
That prospect ended when Waddle's submarine rocketed out of the ocean south of Oahu Feb. 9, its ice-slicing rudder tearing the Japanese vessel, the Ehime Maru, apart. Testimony at a court of inquiry last month in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, revealed that Waddle and his crew rushed periscope and sonar checks before conducting a rapid-surfacing maneuver, so 16 civilian guests could be back to port in time for dinner.
Fargo is also expected to send Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Seacrest, the sonar analyst who said he didn't report the Japanese trawler's location because he got a little ''lazy,'' to a separate administrative proceeding, known as a captain's mast. That proceeding could lead to Seacrest's confinement and the end of his 14-year Navy career. Four other officers are expected to receive lesser reprimands.
The admiral's and captain's masts take their names from the old maritime practice of ordering sailors who broke rules at sea to stand before the ship's mast to be punished. Today's proceedings will be in private.
Debate has already begun on whether the punishment fits the offense.
John Jenkins, a former top lawyer for the Navy, called an admiral's mast ''appropriate'' punishment for Waddle. ''We have, basically, negligence'' on his part, Jenkins said. ''There's no evil intent.''
But Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Fargo's expected ruling represents a ''sea change'' in naval justice.
''For crimes of command, none of the services in recent times has shown much inclination to employ the court-martial system,'' Fidell said. ''Public confidence in the administration of justice, which comes from a public trial, may not be fully served.''
It has been a quarter-century since the Navy court-martialed a commanding officer for a mishap at sea. In 1975, the cruiser USS Belknap collided with the carrier USS John F. Kennedy off of Greece. Eight sailors were killed and 48 injured. The Belknap's commander was court-martialed and acquitted.
Eugene Carroll, a retired rear admiral who was aboard the Kennedy then, recalls a time when the Navy's governing rules ''were known as rocks and shoals because commanding officers were hauled up and punished very stringently under those articles.'' But if Waddle isn't court-martialed, he said, that will send a signal ''of reduced accountability for commanding officers.''
Navy officials don't see it that way. One senior officer says the consensus at the Pentagon is that Fargo made the right decision. Though most agree Waddle fell short of the mark and should be held accountable, they say they don't believe his actions constituted a reckless or blatant disregard for safety.
Another Navy officer said he was convinced that the freewheeling, 12-day court of inquiry held in Pearl Harbor revealed more about the incident than a protracted court-martial bound by rules of evidence would have.
This month, Acting Navy Secretary Robert Pirie signaled the feeling of many in the service when he said a court-martial would hurt morale. He said he was confident Fargo would ''bring all factors together'' in deciding.
One important factor is the effect on U.S.-Japanese relations. Japanese sentiments have softened since the collision. Waddle's testimony, in which he took full responsibility, and his teary apology to family members showed ''he's a stand-up guy,'' said Kevin Barry, a military defense lawyer.
Waddle plans to travel to Japan after his retirement to meet with the families of those killed in the wreck, Gittins said.
After watching him testify, victims' relatives said they realized Waddle and his family had suffered, too. ''I think we can move on,'' said Ryosuke Terata, whose 17-year-old son, Yusuke, died. ''Now I kind of feel sorry for him.''
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