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Court of Inquiry: U.S.S. Greeneville

March 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The panel of three admirals is nearing the end of its inquiry into the crash of a submarine with a Japanese trawler that left nine missing and presumed dead. Today’s surprise witness, the skipper of the “Greeneville,” Commander Scott Waddle. Following the proceedings for us is Jay Fidell, a former Coast Guard lawyer and investigator now in private practice in Honolulu.

Well, has Commander Scott Waddle added to the story, filled in some of the missing pieces, Jay Fidell?

JAY FIDELL: I guess so. You could say that. The background of it is this is… This is coming to an end rapidly. But it was not as rapid as we might have expected. The first thing is that they gave testimony of immunity to FT. 1 Seacrest and he testified yesterday. And then we expected… and statements… unsworn statements were submitted by both Mr. Coen and the executive officer, Commander Pfeifer. And we thought, actually, that Commander Waddle would do the same this morning in closing his part of the investigation.

And he would have been the final part. However, in a surprise move, instead of providing an unsworn statement, he elected to testify under oath. Everyone was surprised.

He made a short and apologetic statement, admitting the command responsibility for the accident — took five or ten minutes. And I guess he might have expected that the court would have accepted that and not done hot questioning. However, if he expected that, it was a miscalculation, because the court then launched into hot questioning, which has been going on all morning and is still going on. And they are asking him tough questions.

They have the demeanor of people who don’t believe his answers. They are not letting him off the hook on anything. They are following the original outline developed by Admiral Griffiths two weeks ago; namely, with the contributing factors to the accident.

Those factors start with the sonar repeater, which wasn’t working. And in that case, they are asking Commander Waddle why he did not arrange specific compensation, additional layers of safety because of the failure of that piece of equipment. They’re asking him about the staffing problems that Admiral Griffiths first raised in great detail; and very pressing questions, and he is dancing to answer. It is something to watch because it’s not clear that he was prepared for the level of intensity of this cross- examination.

Each of the admirals has questions. It appears that they are very well-prepared to ask cross-examination questions, and they are doing so with vigor. I expect this examination is going to continue the rest of the day, and of course the other parties will then have an opportunity to ask Commander Waddle questions. Possibly they’ll call witnesses, but I would doubt that. And I think that when he is finished testifying, one, he’ll be happy to be finished; and two, the investigation will be closed, and the court of inquiry will then go into its deliberations.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you talk about the risk that he takes in testifying. By making testimony after the refusal of immunity, doesn’t he open himself to charges that the admirals have already made clear that he’s vulnerable to?

JAY FIDELL: Absolutely, Ray. It was a risky move. I suppose one could say it was a heroic move. Instead of submitting an unsworn statement, which could not be cross-examined, he elected to open himself up for cross-examination. So the statement and the cross-examination are admissible against him in any criminal proceedings that follow. They gave him a warning at the outset indicating they suspected him of three offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: One, article 90, dereliction of duty; make that 92 dereliction of duty; article 110, hazarding a vessel; and finally, article 134, which includes negligent homicide. Those were the warnings they gave him, and you can see that this court has been thinking about imposing — awarding a court-martial for criminal charges. You can see that by the tenor of their questions. Those are serious warnings they have given him, and this has become perhaps a little more serious than he expected.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned earlier the testimony of the fire control technician before Scott Waddle took the stand. Until the commander himself appeared, this was thought to be some of the most provocative and fascinating testimony of this court of inquiry. Tell us about it.

JAY FIDELL: Well, I would have expected that, too. I would have expected that F.T. 1 Seacrest, who was doing the target motion analysis prior to the accident. I would have expected that his testimony would have pointed perhaps to Commander Waddle, but not necessarily so.

He was given involuntary testimony of immunity. He was ordered by Admiral Fargo to appear, and his testimony was essentially to agree with all the accusatory-type statements and questions that were made to him. He admitted to wrongdoing, he admitted to being lazy, he admitted to failure to follow the rules and regulations, failure to provide the forceful backup. He admitted to nearly everything that anybody asked him in a very flat affect manner. It was quite extraordinary. The only thing he did not admit to was a statement that he had made to the NTSB right after the accident.

At that time, he told the NTSB that he was distracted by the presence of the distinguished visitors. In his testimony yesterday, he hesitated for quite some time when they asked him whether he was distracted by the distinguished visitors, and then he said, “no, I don’t think so.”

And that was a surprise, suggesting that that is a criminal issue in this case that really isn’t being fully developed. We have not heard from the distinguished visitors. They have not been called as witnesses, even though this court of inquiry has the power, as a court of inquiry, to subpoena them as civilians.

We have not heard from Admiral Mackey, who was the fellow, the admiral who brought the civilians together and arranged the trip. The only witness we have heard from who was directly on point of how this was organized with the civilians… the distinguished civilians was Lieutenant Commander Werner, who testified on Friday and who was also the subject of many hot questions by the court of inquiry, but who indicated essentially that he didn’t know exactly how the selection process worked and it was a last-minute affair.

I don’t think this court has gone into that particular area of inquiry as much as it might have. And when it closes, after Commander Waddle finishes his testimony and further cross- examination, it will probably not cover a great degree of information regarding that program and the implementation of the program. But we will see, Ray. We will see the quality of the investigation by its report.

This report will be made after deliberations. There’s no time limit on that but the convening authority Admiral Fargo has a month to act on it, and then it will up the road to the secretary of Navy. And once the secretary of the Navy has acted on it, reviewed it, only then will we get to see the report and all of the enclosures, some 80 enclosures now that have not been made available as yet to the press.

RAY SUAREZ: So it may be some time before we know whether any courts martial will proceed from this court of inquiry?

JAY FIDELL: That’s true. It may be some time. But let me say that this testimony today brings us closer to the possibility of that recommendation.

RAY SUAREZ: Jay Fidell, Thank you for joining us.

JAY FIDELL: Thank you, Ray.