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Possible Presidential Pardons Are Coming For U.S. Servicemen Convicted Of War Crimes


This Monday is Memorial Day, when the nation honors those who have died in military service for the country. The New York Times was the first to report that President Trump might mark the occasion by pardoning U.S. troops who've been accused of war crimes - crimes such as killing unarmed civilians in Iraq and urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.


The prospect of these pardons has outraged veterans like David Lapan. He retired from the Marines as a colonel, then went on to work for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. As he sees it, these pardons would violate the law of war and American values.

DAVID LAPAN: Warfare, of course, by its very nature is brutal. People are going to be killed and wounded and injured in warfare. But international law protects people who are either noncombatants - civilians in most people's parlance - and also combatants who can no longer defend themselves, people who have been captured, people who are wounded.

It is our right and our duty to protect those lives rather than to abuse that authority that we have. So attacking an innocent, torturing someone, attacking a prisoner that's in your custody that's unarmed - those are things that violate the law of war, and that's why people are upset about why individuals who have committed those crimes should be pardoned for them.

CORNISH: So the president has used his pardon powers many times, including earlier this month with a former Army lieutenant who was convicted of murdering a prisoner in Iraq. How is this different when he uses this power with service members versus civilians?

LAPAN: What's very unusual in this particular circumstance as it's being reported is some of the individuals that he's considering pardoning have not even yet gone through the military justice system. They stand accused of these serious crimes.

CORNISH: Yeah, you're talking about the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. His court-martial on shooting unarmed civilians is set to begin soon.

You actually had a congressman out there - Congressman Duncan Hunter - saying that there's camera footage that exonerates him. Hunter's also criticized the military justice system, calling it broken and rigged.

Is there a problem here - an underlying problem here - that should be talked about?

LAPAN: Well, I don't think, one, there's an underlying problem with the military justice system across the board. Are there isolated cases where things have been done improperly? Yes. But in most cases, the system corrects itself.

Like in the civilian justice system, there are appeals. There are reviews. There are ways so that if a military court or a military justice system has gone off in some way, that there are ways to correct that.

CORNISH: What does it mean for the military justice system if pardons like these go forward? What kind of message does it send to your mind?

LAPAN: So three principle ways. One, pardons like these send a message to those who are in the military now that serious crimes can be forgiven, and so the thought of there being military justice - of people being held accountable for violations of their oath and for the law - can be wiped away with a pardon. Two, our allies have to then wonder can they trust that we are going to hold people accountable when they commit wrongdoing? And third, and maybe most important, is it shows our enemies and our adversaries if we are not willing again to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit, then how do their actions compare? Are they more likely to do the same kind of things to our service members that our service members have committed if they're not being held accountable?

CORNISH: What are you hearing in the military community about this - meaning, are there divisions? Are there people who say, look; he's the commander in chief, this makes sense for him to do, compared to folks who are as concerned as you are?

LAPAN: I'd say, you know, if I had to put a number on it, 99 to 1 in terms of people who oppose the idea of these pardons, not just on Memorial Day but ever. It's been overwhelming - both people that I know personally and things that I've read - that service members and veterans are against the idea of these pardons.

CORNISH: David Lapan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LAPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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