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Top Marine's Retirement Plans In Question
Inquiries into the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha could delay retirement for the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, who had earlier hoped to depart the top service post this summer, according to defense officials and experts.
Although Hagee's four-year term does not expire until January 2007, he has told associates over the past year he would prefer to retire this summer when a number of other general officers are expected to move into new assignments, sources tell Inside the Pentagon. But the ongoing investigations are viewed likely to lead to criminal proceedings this summer against a small number of troops suspected of killing unarmed men, women and children last November after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine. That may complicate Hagee's departure.
“He would be hard-pressed to quit now,” says one retired Marine officer closely following the matter. “It looks like his hands are really tied.”
(This former officer and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of not being named because of the sensitivity of the matter.)
At the same time, it does not appear Hagee is considering resigning as a means of taking responsibility for any leadership lapses that may have occurred.
“As commandant, I am the one accountable for organization, training and equipping of Marines,” Hagee said at a June 7 press conference. “I am responsible, and I take these responsibilities quite seriously.”
But asked by a reporter whether he should resign, the commandant responded, “I serve at the pleasure of the president. And I have not submitted any resignation.”
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is examining whether criminal charges should be lodged against a group of Marines implicated in the deaths of two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha, a restive town in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Officials close to the case anticipate the NCIS will complete its investigation by the end of July -- but it could take longer -- and charges including homicide could be filed in the military justice system shortly thereafter. A single or multiple Article 32 investigations would follow, with hearings potentially beginning by early September in a process that may lead to court martial.
In a parallel inquiry, Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is examining whether Marines up the chain of command are culpable for failing to investigate or covering up discrepancies in initial military reports of the incident. The Marine Corps has yet to correct a misleading Nov. 20 statement saying 15 Iraqi civilians were killed in a bomb blast, despite accounts by another unit -- arriving in Haditha just hours after the incident -- that found 24 civilians had died of gunshot wounds, The Washington Post reported June 4.
Bargewell is expected to wrap up his investigation in the coming days or weeks.
Sources cite a variety of reasons for Hagee's wish to retire months early, including policy battles he is reportedly weary of waging and a wish to allow his successor sufficient time to assemble his own Marine Corps budget plan for submission to Capitol Hill early next year. The timing would also return the Marines to replacing their commandant during the summer rather winter, which would track better with the normal rotation of generals within the service, defense officials say.
Sister publication Inside the Navy in March first reported the commandant's potentially early departure, citing Hagee's public disagreement with a major Pentagon review decision to cut Marine Corps troops from 180,000 to 175,000 by fiscal year 2011. At the time, Hagee left open the possibility of a near-term exit, telling ITN it is up to the defense secretary to select his replacement and determine when the change of command should occur.
But, according to sources, the timing of the commandant's departure became complicated just one month later when a handful of retired generals came forward to criticize Donald Rumsfeld's leadership on the war in Iraq and his management of the Pentagon. The so-called “revolt” of the retired generals -- several of whom called on Rumsfeld to resign -- reportedly made relations awkward between the defense secretary and a number of his highest ranking generals and admirals, whose loyalty and discretion no longer seemed assured.
If Hagee were to retire much before January, his departure could be widely interpreted as the most significant rupture of relations between Rumsfeld and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki openly differed with the defense secretary over recommended force levels for Iraq in 2003, according to officials and observers.
Many view it as unlikely that either the defense secretary or the commandant seek such an outcome.
“Even if Hagee were trying to restore the summer turnover, it would not look good,” a Pentagon official said this week.
One retired Marine officer agrees: “It would be interpreted by some as jumping ship and I'm sure that would be a major consideration for him.”
An early departure for Hagee became even more unlikely last month when Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) set off a media firestorm about the Haditha killings. In comments to reporters, the lawmaker revealed May 17 that a relatively unnoticed investigation had found Marines “killed innocent civilians in cold blood” in an incident “much worse than reported in Time magazine” two months earlier.
The Marine Corps has declined to elaborate on investigation findings to date but some details have been leaked to the press.
There is much speculation in defense circles about who might replace Hagee. Some Marine Corps watchers say Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, who heads U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command and five regional service organizations, is a front runner. His experience as a ground officer includes serving as chief of staff at the Coalition Forces Land Component Command during the 2003 march to Baghdad.
Another top contender, according to defense sources, is Lt. Gen. James Conway, an infantry officer who is now director of operations at the Pentagon's Joint Staff. His operational experience includes two combat tours as commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, currently commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, is also considered a possible pick to become the next commandant. It is unclear whether his role high in the chain of command during the Haditha incident and its aftermath would affect his prospects for the job, officials tell ITP. Citing a “lack of confidence,” Sattler on April 7 relieved two officers -- an infantry battalion commander and a company commander -- in the chain of command of the squad suspected in the killings.
Though the Marine Corps has not connected the officer firings to the Haditha incident, sources say Sattler took the early move to make clear to the Pentagon that he understands the gravity of the allegations.
His experience as congressional liaison officer to the House of Representatives in the early 1990s and a tour as director of Marine Corps Public Affairs in 2000 has made him a well liked figure on Capitol Hill, according to defense officials.
A dark horse candidate to replace Hagee might be Gen. James Cartwright, according to Marine Corps pundits. Rumsfeld named him the first Marine to head U.S. Strategic Command in 2004, a post he still holds, and if selected as commandant he would become the first aviator to serve in the job. With much experience in Washington and in joint-service positions, Cartwright could be an attractive pick for a defense secretary who likes to fill top slots with unorthodox choices.
A disadvantage, though, could be that Cartwright has been operating outside his own service for so long that he “doesn't know what's going on” within the Marine Corps, says one Pentagon official.