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Acting US navy head resigns over carrier controversy

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Via Financial Times

The acting head of the US navy has resigned over his controversial handling of the firing of the aircraft carrier captain who had asked for help dealing with a coronavirus outbreak on the ship.

US defence secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday he had accepted the resignation of Thomas Modly, who has been the navy’s acting civilian head since November. Mr Modly “resigned on his own accord,” Mr Esper said in a statement. 

The acting secretary — the top civilian leadership position in the navy — had come under intense criticism for saying that Captain Brett Crozier had been “too naive or too stupid” to command the USS Theodore Roosevelt in remarks during a visit to the carrier, which is docked in Guam as the navy grapples with dozens of coronavirus cases on the ship.

Capt Crozier was dismissed last week after urging the navy in a dramatic letter that became public to do more to protect the several thousand sailors on the ship. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” he wrote.

After he dismissed Capt Crozier, Mr Modly said he should not have sent the letter to so many people, accusing him of going against the chain of command and increasing the likelihood that the document would go public and signal to adversaries that the carrier had a problem.

When Capt Crozier disembarked last week, however, he received a rapturous send-off from the crew, which cast a harsh spotlight on Mr Modly. The acting navy head created more problems for himself by travelling to Guam and castigating the departed captain in front of the crew in profanity-laced attack.

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Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said Mr Modly had shown “a serious lack of the sound judgment and strong leadership”.

Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate armed services committee, said he had “mishandled the situation” by removing Capt Crozier “against the advice of senior navy uniformed leadership”, and that his disparaging comments about the former commander were “troubling”.

President Donald Trump had also threatened to weigh in on the issue, saying that Mr Modly and Capt Crozier were “two good people,” while at the same time remarking that the captain should not have sent the letter.

The incident is just the latest problem to beset the US navy, which has seen its reputation badly tarnished in recent years over everything from collisions at sea to a series of personnel scandals that have involved top officials and senior uniformed naval officers.

Mr Esper in November fired Richard Spencer, the previous navy secretary, for trying to negotiate a deal with the White House after Mr Trump intervened in a military justice case involving a Navy seal who was convicted of war crimes and accused — and later acquitted — of murdering a wounded Afghan detainee.

The navy has also been roiled by the “Fat Leonard” case, in which a number of navy officers have been fired or demoted over a scandal that involved a contractor bribing officers in Singapore with lavish entertainment and prostitutes.

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Joe Biden, the former vice-president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said the resignation was appropriate. “Our sailors, our nation, and Captain Crozier deserve better,” Mr Biden said.

Guy Snodgrass, a retired Navy officer who previously served with Capt Crozier, said the situation was a “crisis of leadership” that the navy had not seen “in decades”.

He said it was also showed “what happens when you’re wrapped too tightly in your own bubble and you lose sight of the men and women you’re responsible for.”

Mr Snodgrass said it was extraordinary that Mr Modly flew to Guam to deliver a tirade, saying it risked leaving junior officers unclear whether to alert leaders to issues that might save lives or stay quiet to avoid being fired. 

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