On Dec. 9, two men quietly met at a coffee shop in Coronado.
Although surrounded by the Saturday breakfast crowd, they chose seats unlikely to attract the attention of eavesdroppers.
The other, very cautious, man was retired Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, considered within the SEAL community as one of the toughest officers to ever wear a commando's trident.
For the next 90 minutes, Little wooed Losey to become a confidential informant, sharing his inside knowledge about what he seemed to believe were the "political" shenanigans surrounding a probe into three SEALs accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan in 2012.
"Frustration with the senior leadership," recalled Little on Tuesday morning as he gave testimony in the court-martial of Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Daniel V. D'Ambrosio Jr. and two Special Operator Chief Petty Officers, Xavier Silva and David N. Swarts. "And there appeared to be anger to go along with that. And fear."
Speaking under oath inside the Naval Base San Diego courtroom, Little said that Losey was so scared of being recorded or followed that when the session wrapped up, the SEAL told the Navy investigator to leave first, so he couldn't identify the car he drove or trace a path back to his home.
Little had wanted to know if Losey felt pressured by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and senior military leaders to reopen an investigation of the three SEALs who were accused of abusing male prisoners at Village Stability Platform Kalach in the Chora District of Afghanistan's Uruzgan Province on May 31, 2012.
Five months after the beatings and despite the eyewitness accounts of Army soldiers and concerns that a homicide might have been committed -- but was never proved -- the SEALs were given non-judicial punishment by their commander, Capt. Robert E. Smith.
Called a "Captain's Mast" in the Navy, it's a far less severe form of justice than a general court-martial and its proceedings play out in private, far from public courtrooms and a paper trail citizens can follow.
In particular, Little wanted to know the role played by the Navy's top lawyer, Vice Adm. James Crawford III -- the Navy's judge advocate general -- and whether he conspired with other senior leaders to exert unlawful command influence on subordinates to prosecute SEALs who already had been punished.
The more they talked about Crawford, Little testified, the more Losey's demeanor changed, becoming "more animated."
"He spoke about the importance of honor and courage and seeking the truth, but none of that seemed to make any difference anymore," said Little, adding that the SEAL seemed to believe that the prosecution had come "down to a political decision at that point."
Little showed Losey the emails the criminal defense attorneys had dug up.
"He said, 'You need to ask for more emails,' " Little said, suggesting that the Navy had lost or withheld key evidence in the case.
To Little, Losey was concerned that the Navy had abandoned Smith, who had received mixed advice on how to handle the war crimes case.
"Leadership didn't have their back," Little recalled.
And then Little dropped a name that had nothing to do with the probe into Village Stability Platform Kalach but everything to do with Crawford.
"He brought up the Barry case," Little testified. "I didn't bring it up."
A ruling is expected in the coming days from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., into Crawford's alleged involvement in the rape case of Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Keith Barry, who was court-martialed and convicted in San Diego in 2015.
A special judge hearing evidence in Barry's appeal already ruled that Crawford and other senior leaders unlawfully tampered in the matter but left the final adjudication to the higher court.
Crawford also was accused by defense attorneys of improperly inserting himself into a probe involving the May 6, 2016, pool drowning of Seaman James Derek Lovelace during initial SEAL training.
Crawford has long insisted he was innocent in those cases and declined comment Tuesday.
"The prosecution has opposed the defense motion to dismiss based on unlawful command influence in U.S. v. D'Ambrosio, Silva and Swarts, and the judge's ruling on the matter is forthcoming," Navy spokeswoman Patricia Babb said by email. "It would be inappropriate to discuss this case further, as it is Navy policy to not comment on ongoing or pending litigation."
Losey wasn't called to the stand on Tuesday. His successor at Naval Special Warfare, Rear Adm. Timothy Szymanski, is slated to be questioned Wednesday evening.
Telephone messages left by The San Diego Union-Tribune with Losey were not returned.
In her cross-examination, military prosecutor Cmdr. Andrea Lockhart tore into Little's recollections.
She pointed out that Little neither recorded the conversation nor took notes. She suggested that Losey might have been fearful of him -- not retaliation by fellow SEALs or senior leaders -- especially because the admiral had left the service in 2016.
In early 2017, the Navy quietly allowed Losey to retroactively pick up his second star. His promotion had been blocked in Congress in early 2016, following an Inspector General probe into allegations that he retaliated against subordinates during a crusade to find the person who turned him in for minor travel expense violations.
To Lockhart, it was telling that Losey never specifically mentioned he felt pressured by Crawford to take a course of action against the SEALs that was allegedly favored by senior leaders or lawmakers.
Little said that after he showed Losey a list of questions he wanted to ask him, it was the SEAL leader who took the pages and wrote down his answers.
At one point, he scribbled "political." At other times, he put down "record," meaning that if asked that question in court he'd fall back on what he already told investigators, nothing more, Little testified.
Emails exchanged between Crawford and Losey two years ago that have been submitted as evidence seem to echo what he allegedly told Little in the coffee shop.
Crawford, on the other hand, emailed Losey that Smith was being investigated already for allegedly bypassing traditional criminal justice procedures -- possibly sending a warning to junior leaders that the Navy wanted the commandos prosecuted, the SEALs' defense attorneys believe.
To them, Losey's communications with Crawford seem similar to messages exchanged around the same time between the Navy JAG and Rear Adm. Patrick Lorge, then the commander of the San Diego-based Navy Region Southwest, in the Barry case.
Lorge wanted to overturn the verdict because it lacked sufficient evidence, was overseen by a judge he felt was not objective and Barry "may not have committed the crime."
But because of Crawford's input, Lorge later testified, he didn't overturn Barry's verdict and came to believe an innocent man went to prison.
Barry's Washington, D.C.-based appellate attorney, David P. Sheldon, said by phone that the Navy needed to remove Crawford from his post and place him in "legal hold" until an investigation could be done into his role in all three SEAL cases.
"It's is Adm. Crawford who should be held accountable for his repeated unlawful acts," Sheldon said.
The hearing was to resume Wednesday with the formal trial scheduled later in May.
A June trial for the SEALs' commander in Afghanistan, Navy Lt. Jason L. Webb, waits in the wings. He's accused of willfully failing to supervise the interactions between his sailors and the Afghan militiamen when they interrogated the prisoners and later filing a false report about what really happened.
Like the other three SEALs, Webb has pleaded not guilty.
This article was written by Carl Prine from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.