The new acting Navy secretary has ordered a deeper look into the controversial firing of Capt. Brett Crozier, delaying his possible return to command and potentially opening other leaders up to scrutiny.
Acting Navy Secretary James McPherson said on Wednesday that he has "unanswered questions" about the preliminary inquiry into his predecessor's decision to remove Crozier from command. Those questions "can only be answered by a deeper review," he said.
"Therefore, I am directing [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike] Gilday to conduct a follow-on command investigation," McPherson said in a statement. "This investigation will build on the good work of the initial inquiry to provide a more fulsome understanding of the sequence of events, actions, and decisions of the chain of command surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt."
Gilday last week recommended that Crozier be reinstated as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt has been sidelined in Guam for a month as leaders deal with a health crisis on board after nearly 1,000 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, spread among its crew.
Almost the entire crew has since been moved off the ship and into isolation as the carrier is disinfected. Crozier had warned Navy leaders about the situation in a letter that was published last month by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly first said the captain wouldn't be punished unless leaders determined he had leaked his letter to the paper. Modly fired Crozier 24 hours later, despite saying he had no proof the captain sent the letter to the newspaper.
The situation has caused a firestorm for the Navy that ultimately led to Modly resigning from his position.
Many questions remain about what Crozier did to inform his chain of command about concerns over the coronavirus cases onboard his ship before he sent the now-famous letter, and whether leaders acted on those warnings. Questions also remain about the military's decision to have the carrier make a port call in Vietnam in early March as coronavirus was spreading across the Asia-Pacific region.
A wider investigation is likely to examine some of those topics.
Navy officials have said it's unclear how the coronavirus began spreading among the crew. There were confirmed cases at a hotel in Vietnam that some of the crew members had visited, though officials later said those sailors tested negative for the virus.
Leaders have since turned their attention toward air crews who flew deliveries out to the ship from Japan, the Philippines and other locations in the region, but officials stress they may never know how the outbreak started.
Politico first reported McPherson's decision to widen the investigation. That's after Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley advised Defense Secretary Mark Esper to defer a decision on approving the Navy's push to reinstate Crozier until there was a broader probe, according to Politico.
Esper on Friday got a verbal update from McPherson and Gilday on the preliminary inquiry. The defense secretary wanted to review a written copy of the report before deciding whether to approve the recommendation, his spokesman said last week.
Milley was "not against Crozier being reinstated," Politico reported, "just that a larger investigation should be conducted."
Navy officials have not offered a timeline for when the new investigation is expected to be completed.