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Update: Court of Inquiry

March 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A panel of three admirals at Pearl Harbor is wrapping up its second week of testimony on the crash of the U.S. Submarine Greeneville with the Japanese trawler. The collision left nine Japanese missing and presumed dead. Former coast guard lawyer and investigator Jay Fidell is following the proceedings for us. He’s now in private practice in Honolulu. Hi, Jay. Let’s start with today. What happened and what was said.? Who spoke — who testified and what was said?

JAY FIDELL: There have been two witnesses so far today. One is Chief McGiboney and he was the sonar supervisor, supervising two sonar men who were there, one of whom was unqualified. As a result of the concern about that, the chief had asked for a lawyer and apparently had legal vision before he testified. In any event, through his testimony, it was confirmed again that he did not have quite sufficient information to determine exactly what the proximity of the contact was; that is the contact with the Ehime Maru. In other words, you have to take legs. And a leg allows the sonar man to read the distance. And in this case he had one short leg. He had no control over that and he didn’t have the information and he didn’t know the leg was short or that the distance was not accurate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Why not?

JAY FIDELL: Because the information about the distance of the leg is known to the commanding officer and the officer of the deck in the control room. And he was in the sonar room so he would not know about navigational issues like that. The information he received is what he processed and what he processed was that the submarine was not near a close contact. So everything seemed normal. And he said he would not have changed anything that was done including what was done by the unsupervised, unqualified sonar man seaman in that sonar room at that time. I think what was interesting in the examination by the court and, by way, Elizabeth, the court is still hot. They’re still interested, they’re still asking questions, they’re still pursuing areas that were recommended to them by the original investigator, Admiral Griffiths, and they are still very much doing their own examination. They asked about the watch bill and the watch bill included the unqualified sonar man sitting in the sonar room. And they pointed out in their questions –

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain what a watch bill is.

JAY FIDELL: Sorry. A watch bill is a list of the individuals on the submarine who are assigned to certain posts. It’s very important to know who is at every given post and whether that individual is properly qualified to sit at that particular post. In this case there was an issue of one particular post that was being manned by an unqualified sonar man and that name was on the watch bill. Various questions about the watch bill. For example, nine out of 13 people on the watch bill for the area of the sonar room and control room were switched in the middle of this trip. That was quite remarkable. In the words of the members of the court asking about it, it was embarrassing and in fact astounding. You can tell now that there will be some further play on this issue regarding the watch bill. Following Chief McGonagle, what we had was the testimony of Lieutenant Van Winkle. Lieutenant Van Winkle was the weapons officer and responsible for the sonar room and he had to admit there were problems with the watch bill. He himself, he said, did not notice that the sonar man sitting in that particular seat was unqualified. Both of these witnesses — he was not present by the way on the day of the accident. He was off the ship at a school. And with him were some 20 to 21 crew members from his department including seven or eight sonar men who presumably were qualified and who could have been sitting in the sonar room on that day. The court is looking carefully at the staffing issue here, which was originally identified by Admiral Griffiths in his original report.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jay, let’s go back over some of the highlights of the week. I know you weren’t every single second but from what you saw and the transcripts you read, tell us first about the captain of the Japanese trawler. He really gave some dramatic testimony, even about the sounds of this event, didn’t he, this crash?

JAY FIDELL: Oh, yes. In a word, he as overpowered by what happened. It happened so quickly. He didn’t understand exactly what had happened and he himself was swept off the ship. There was virtually nothing he could do. And his testimony, which he in part read and he read it in Japanese so that the Japanese families could understand clearly for the first time in their own language what the testimony was, was a story of violence and deafening sounds, very quick sinking of the ship. It was remarkable testimony. It does not go to exactly what happened in the control room of the Greeneville but it is important that the court hear this testimony to know what followed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And on Monday Admiral Konetzni tell us who he is and what he added to the overall picture of what happened; he was pretty dramatic too.

JAY FIDELL: Oh, yeah. He is the most senior witness to testify so far. He is the boss. He is the commander of the Pacific submarine fleet. And he was not kind to Commander Waddle, indicated that it all came back to Commander Waddle and some of the other issues that were raised as to what was wrong in the submarine or in the procedures in the submarine were red herring and that in fact his concern was what Commander Waddle did, he said he did it too quickly and he said although he felt that Commander Waddle was his friend, his brother, his son, and that he — deeply caring about Commander Waddle, he was angry with him and his remark was he would like to go over there and hit him for what he had done in moving too quickly and in causing the accident. This testimony was damaging to Commander Waddle for sure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Captain Robert Brandhuber also testified. Tell us who he is and how he happened to be on the submarine.

JAY FIDELL: Elizabeth, Captain Brandhuber was the chief of staff under Admiral Konetzni. He was on the submarine as an escort. He was the acting commander of the pacific submarine fleet and so had lots of power. He wore the epaulet so to speak of Admiral Konetzni that way. The question why is didn’t he intervene. What information did he have that might have led him to tell commander waddle what to do to avoid unsafe maneuvers? His testimony which was obviously uncomfortable for him, he did not see anything unreasonable although he thought Commander Waddle was moving a little quickly but nothing as quickly as would warrant intervention.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Commander Waddle’s lawyer has offered a proffer. Please describe what a proffer is and what is in this letter.

JAY FIDELL: A proffer is an offer of testimony. You will recall that Commander Waddle as well as Mr. Cohen, the OD, have requested testimonial immunity. In response to that request, back on March 1st or so, March 3 specifically, Admiral Fargo requested that both of them make proffers, that is, offers of what evidence they might give in immune testimony. Mr. Cohen immediately provided his proffer. Commander Waddle did not provide his proffer until a day or two ago when he apparently gave it to the convening authority, Admiral Fargo and, and drove up here to the area of the media village and distributed copies to the members of the press indicating that for him this is at least in part a battle for public opinion. In any event, this proffer or offer of testimony offers to testify about all the things that have come up that are subjective things that only Commander Waddle could talk about. It’s tantalizing, because he would lend a certain additional level of information to the investigation. So it is a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that it would help find the truth but the stick is that as far as he’s concerned, Commander Waddle’s original statement before he was identified as party to the investigation was inappropriately taken and cannot be used as evidence, and in fact that all of the proceedings that followed it are tainted by its inadmissibility. So this offer letter that he made is something that Commander – rather Admiral Fargo is going to have to decide – and my guess, Elizabeth, is that he will decide this weekend or early next week because there are not that many witnesses left to testify.

We know that the three parties have not testified and the immunity question goes to whether and when they will. And we know that the civilians have not been called to testify and may not be called. We are still waiting for this afternoon — it will be Lieutenant Commander Westerner Werner, who is the public affairs officer, who can explain the ship’s movement because there is a question about who ordered the ship to move that day and finally Petty Officer Seacrest who is the fire control technician who is plotting the target motion analysis and did not identify this as a close contact just prior to the collision.

Those witnesses will be early next week. So there is plenty to wait for. We have actually two areas going. We have the hearing itself, and we have the action now anticipated from Admiral Fargo on the various legal issues pending on his desk.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jay Fidell, thanks very much for keeping track of this for us.

JAY FIDELL: Thank you, Elizabeth.