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Update: Sub Collision

March 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The first four days of the inquiry have been devoted to the testimony and cross- examination of the chief investigating officer. He prepared a formal report on the collision of the submarine and the Japanese trawler that left nine dead. With us is former Coast Guard lawyer and investigator Jay Fidell. He is now an attorney in private practice in Hawaii and has been watching the inquiry for us. Welcome back.

JAY FIDELL: Hi, Ray. Thanks.

RAY SUAREZ: The last time you were with us, you spoke of a pretty impressive and thorough presentation by Admiral Charles Griffiths. The next step was cross-examination. How did lawyers for the officers of the U.S.S. “Greeneville” do on cross-ex?

JAY FIDELL: Well, before they got to cross, there was questioning by the court which you thought was very good, and it was done in a way that I could consider a hot court, namely that each of the members of the court had a lot of questions. They had obviously spent a lot of time writing those questions down and thinking about the matter, and it was an impressive participation by them. And that was the afternoon, I think, after you and I spoke. On Wednesday morning, the cross-examination began, and I would say that the attorneys for the parties made some real inroads on the investigation. Both counsel for Commander Waddell and Commander Pfeifer made inroads by attacking the primarily nature of the investigation. The fact that the investigating officer, Admiral Griffiths, had not talked to every witness, that some of the transcripts of the testimony had not be accurately reproduced, that some of the notes of the investigators were reported as statements of the parties, that some of the calculations and formulas used in the exhibits were not quite right, that some of the information that he might have known he didn’t know, that some of the Navy warfare publications that bear on the issues in this case had not been referred to. So cumulatively, their cross-examination did deteriorate some of the force of his earlier testimony. And that was yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the cross-examination really do damage that might stand up through the length of this process to some of the really cornerstone findings in Admiral Griffiths’ initial report?

JAY FIDELL: Not in my view. And apparently not in the view of the court because the court went home last night and wrote some more questions up, and they came in this morning as a hot court again, and the three of them asked a lot of good questions, questions that showed clearly that they were not particularly impressed by the cross-examination and that Admiral Griffiths’ essential report still stands, that his essential recommendations still stand. And that was clear in this morning’s session. Those opinions that he made, which I feel are still viable points of the investigation and of the investigation now to follow, are, one, that the factors to the… the factors which contributed to the collision are, one, that the sonar repeater was not working; two, is that the sonar room was understaffed; three is that Captain Waddell was hurrying; four is that there were distractions by the distinguished guests on the submarine; and five, that there was a problem in the control room; namely, that the command climate was not quite right. And those things I would say are the cornerstones of his testimony and will continue through this investigation.

RAY SUAREZ: From the tone of the questioning of the admirals who sit on the court of inquiry, would you say that they’ve gone some way toward rehabilitating Admiral Griffiths as a witness?

JAY FIDELL: Absolutely. They did do that. They spent the morning doing that. They worked on all the points that I could see the defense had made yesterday and took pains to rehabilitate the witness themselves. The questions were not being posed by counsel for the court but by the court members themselves. And it was, again, a court of very interested admirals who had done their homework, who were actively involved in thinking about all the issues that had been raised.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when you talk about these admirals peppering the witness with questions, and you seem to be quite impressed with the level of their questioning, maybe it’s good for us to understand who these admirals are. Are they in fact lawyers or just highly interested and experienced military men who ask good questions because they understand the nature of running ships?

JAY FIDELL: Oh, I think it’s the latter. They’re all successful admirals in high places from various places in the country. Only one is a submarine experienced admiral, although I think they all have time at sea. And they are all non lawyers but operators and commanders, and they do not come at this from the point of view of a legal approach so much as the point of view of an operating approach and what is good for Navy operations.

RAY SUAREZ: And from the tenor of their questioning, are you already beginning to sort of get a sense of where they stand on the outcome — where they stand on the responsibility of these three officers for the terrible accident?

JAY FIDELL: Yes. This morning’s rehabilitation questions clearly indicated that they have moved of center, that they are no longer… have no opinions. They begin to have opinions now. And their opinions seem to be that the… that there was something wrong here, that even if you could defend a particular act as reasonable for a commander, that cumulatively, these mistakes led to a less than best possible judgment by the commander. And so the limelight is on the commander again, and to a lesser extent, the other two parties. But clearly the court has developed views that he made mistakes and the mistakes led to the collision.

RAY SUAREZ: So earlier accounts that talked about trying to shift blame to a more junior member of the crew, they don’t seem to you to be sticking?

JAY FIDELL: It’s not over yet, Ray. This morning, for the first time, the name of the mysterious fire-control technician was revealed. And his name is petty officer Patrick Seacrest. And he is the FT-1 who was by the fire-control board at the time this was happening at 150-foot depth. He was the one who had the contact and did not report it to the captain. He was the one responsible for charting it on the chart on the bulkhead and did not do so in the hour prior to the collision, and he will undoubtedly be a witness in this case. And there’s no question but that he’s going to have to answer a lot of questions about what happened.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think we’ll hear from the parties themselves? They’re not defendants, these three officers.

JAY FIDELL: Well, two of the three of the parties have put in requests for testimonial immunity, and they are making every campaign to get the convening authority, Admiral Fargo to grant that request. So far, he has not done so. And I for one would doubt that he will do so. That leaves them with two options: One is they could steam ahead and make sworn testimony in court subject to cross-examination, testimony which could be used against them at a subsequent court-martial; or two, they could make an unsworn statement, which would not be under oath and which counsel would help them draft and which would probably be much less of a risk in any subsequent court-martial. Those are their options.

RAY SUAREZ: I’ll have to leave it there, but Jay Fidell, thanks for your help.

JAY FIDELL: Thank you, Ray.