The Complex

Exclusive: Congress Bars Families of Fallen SEALs From Testifying at Hearing About Their Deaths

After more than two years of waiting, the families of service members killed in the United States' deadliest mission in Afghanistan will finally get to hear Defense Department personnel testify before Congress on Thursday about the operation and the questionable ways the remains of the troops were handled afterward. But before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing even begins, lawmakers on the panel are already taking fire for not allowing any members of those families to testify about their pain and lingering uncertainty about why their loved ones died.

The hearing will address the disastrous and mysterious Aug. 6, 2011, mission that killed 38 people and a working dog on board a CH-47D Chinook helicopter that had been dispatched to reinforce Army Rangers locked in a fierce firefight in central Afghanistan. Insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades shot the helicopter out of the sky, killing 17 members of SEAL Team 6 -- the legendary unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden -- as well as 13 other American troops. Witnesses later told military investigators that the aircraft -- call sign "Extortion 17" -- had crashed and exploded in a fireball.

In December, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Foreign Policy his oversight committee would hold a hearing on the demise of Extortion 17 early this year. The decision raised the prospect that senior U.S. military commanders could be put on the hot seat to answer for a mission that critics say was poorly planned at best, doomed from the start at worse, and needlessly risked the lives of some of the nation's most elite troops.

That won't be the case, however. The witness list for the hearing includes one civilian Pentagon official and four officials who oversee various aspects of military mortuary affairs. In addition, a plan to have a second witness panel comprising some family members of U.S. troops killed that day was scrapped in favor of having them submit written statements expressing their thoughts and concerns.

"This hearing is being conducted at the request of numerous families impacted by the loss of the brave men aboard Extortion 17," Chaffetz told Foreign Policy in a statement Wednesday. "Given the extremely diverse expectations between families, we have tried our best to treat all interests equally. After much consideration, it was determined that the only way to ensure that each family's personal equities and unique interests were addressed fairly was to have a set standard regarding the input of all families, regardless of their point of view or their ability to attend the hearing in person."

The decision is deeply disappointing to the families who had planned to testify, said Doug Hamburger, whose son, Patrick, was an Army staff sergeant and crew chief on board the helicopter when it went down. The elder Hamburger had planned to speak on his son's behalf at the hearing, but will now listen quietly instead.

"My understanding was that I was going to be one of the family members testifying, and I got a phone call from Congress last Thursday saying that wasn't the case," Hamburger told Foreign Policy. "Quite frankly, I think that anyone who lost a son in Extortion 17 should be able to address Congress."

The crash killed 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan interpreter, and a U.S. military working dog in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley in Wardak province, west of Kabul, U.S. officials said. The group included 17 SEALs, all but two of whom were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly known as SEAL Team 6. A different unit within that fabled SEAL unit executed the daring raid in which U.S. forces killed terrorist mastermind and al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, early May 2, 2011. The other Americans on board Extortion 17 included five special operations support personnel and members of the Army National Guard who manned the helicopter.

Larry Klayman, a lawyer who has represented several of the families affected, said his clients are upset both about being silenced and by the fact that no top military commanders will be called before Congress for a grilling about the doomed mission. The witness list suggests that the hearing will primarily cover how the remains of the fallen troops were treated but not look at why, or how, they died.

To be sure, the treatment of the fallen troops has raised serious concerns since the crash. Charles Strange said the remains of his son, Michael -- a cryptologist with SEAL Team 6 killed aboard Extortion 17 -- were cremated along with many of the service members on board. U.S. military officials initially told the elder Strange his son's body was burned beyond recognition, but he later obtained a photograph from the military that showed his son's remains were recognizable, the father said. Those details were not released in a five-page executive summary published by Centcom in September 2011.

The witnesses include Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict; Deborah Skillman, director of casualty and mortuary affairs for the Defense Department; Col. John Devillier, commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations; Col. Kerk Brown, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center; and Cmdr. Aaron Brodsky, director of Navy Casualty services.

It does not, however, include the senior commanders who planned the mission or Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, who was a one-star general when he was appointed by now-retired Gen. James Mattis to conduct an investigation into what went wrong for Extortion 17.

Klayman called the witness list disappointing.

"Notwithstanding the lack of family members as witnesses," Klayman said, "the only way to honor our fallen heroes is to get honest answers to the thus far inexplicable circumstances of their deaths."

Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Geneva G. Brier/ U.S. Navy

The Complex

Marching Orders: The Army's Top General Has to Sell Congress on Troop Cuts He's Loath to Make

This story has been corrected.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was traveling in Asia earlier this week when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed plans to cut the Army to levels that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago -- and that are far lower than what Odierno has long considered safe.

Odierno was the only one of the Pentagon's service chiefs who didn't attend the rollout of the Obama administration's defense budget. But Odierno, who has tried to hold the line on the Army's so-called force structure and keep as many soldiers in uniform as possible, is said to be behind Hagel on the cuts. Now he must become one of Hagel's biggest pitchmen, helping the secretary of defense persuade a wary Congress that shrinking the Army -- to levels last seen in the years in the buildup before World War II -- amounts to manageable risk.

The Army had already been scheduled to shrink from its wartime peak of 570,000 soldiers down to roughly 490,000. Hagel now wants to reduce the Army to about 440,000. That goes past a "red line" Odierno had signaled he didn't want to cross, so the fact that the Army chief is standing behind Hagel signals that the general is willing to go along with the cuts, at least for now.

Keeping Odierno on board is vital for Hagel and the rest of Barack Obama's administration. The general will be asked about the cuts repeatedly in coming weeks during appearances on Capitol Hill and other public events. Lawmakers opposed to the cuts will press him again and again for his true feelings about the deal. If Odierno wandered off script and expressed even the slightest doubts about the cuts, those same lawmakers would then use his comments as ammunition in their fight to get the White House to reverse course on the Pentagon budget.

"People are on board, but some people have been dragged on board," one senior Army official told Foreign Policy, referring to thinking within Odierno's inner circle.

Of all the cuts contained in the $496 billion Pentagon budget unveiled Monday, sharply reducing the size of the Army was the clearest signal yet that the Pentagon is shifting course after more than a decade of constant war.

It falls to Odierno, an imposing officer with a shaved head and a passionate leadership style, to sell the deal. Odierno, sometimes known as "Shrek," has always been an intriguing figure. First slammed for not "getting the memo" on fighting an insurgency in Iraq, Odierno adapted and led American troops through some of the U.S. military's most successful counterinsurgency operations toward the end of the war. The lesson he would draw from that period was that a successful counterinsurgency mission requires a high numbers of troops. Odierno was initially passed over for the Army's top job and only got it when Gen. Marty Dempsey, Obama's first pick, was tapped to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of 2011. The accidental chief of staff must now become the biggest advocate for cuts to his Army in which he may not truly believe.

The entire military is struggling to adjust to the political and fiscal realities of the postwar period, but the Army is suffering through the biggest identity crisis. Its vast size means it has become low-hanging fruit for Pentagon bean counters during the current belt-tightening phase. Advocates of cutting the Army also point to the fact that its mission remains ill-defined at a time when no one sees an appetite anytime soon for another big land war.

Still, Odierno has fought to keep the cuts to a minimum as he argues the nation must hedge against unknown future risks. He and his supporters argue that maintaining a large force makes sense when there is so much uncertainty and the Pentagon -- by its own admission- - acknowledges it fails to predict the future well.

"We haven't gotten it right yet," said one Army officer.

The service, now around 520,000 soldiers, has been planning to shrink to 490,000 by 2016. But the new budget proposal requires a far sharper decline, to as few as 440,000 soldiers. And if Congress opts to impose a sequester on the Pentagon budget, the size of the Army could drop to 420,000.

As close to the bone as the cuts may be, outside experts believe Odierno will carry the Pentagon's water. And in return, he likely received assurances about readiness and other modernization programs that will help him to keep the Army whole.

"At the end of the day, the budget they put forward had to have all the chiefs stand there at the podium," said Maren Leed, who worked as a senior advisor to Odierno. "If they had not reached some accommodation in that regard, they would not have put this budget out."

Odierno is expected to appear on Capitol Hill in April to defend the cuts, and some close observers question whether he will fully believe in the case he will have to make.

"He's standing behind this, but he's clear-eyed about what this is and what this is not," said Roger Zakheim, a former senior staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.

Zakheim said that lawmakers will be listening carefully for how the Army chief characterizes the amount of risk involved in cutting his force. "This request has gaps and limitations and serious risks, and I think that's what I think members will be listening for," he said.

One defense official believes that when Odierno appears in public settings in coming weeks to defend the cuts, he'll be walking a fine line. "Odierno will stay on the reservation, but on its outermost edges -- you'll hear more alarmist risk assessment," the official said.

Pentagon officials insist the proposed budget document is a "strategy-driven" document -- not a budget-driven one. That's hard for some to accept amid a downturn within the Defense Department's coffers. Still, there are fears inside the Army that the 440,000-soldier Army the Pentagon is now proposing is slightly arbitrary and that it is not really based on any specific strategy.

And there's another reason why the Army is worried and why it will be hard for Odierno to sell the argument on Capitol Hill. Army leaders fear the Pentagon leadership doesn't understand that it needs a certain amount of "rotational depth" in terms of how it deploys its forces.

For years, the Army has executed a kind of "shape-and-prevent" strategy that aims to influence events around the world through training and exercises and other deployments. The Army has fought the notion that it can essentially be held in reserve at a smaller size and then, if world events dictate, the nation can just "break glass at a time of war," as one official put it. Instead it takes time to build a force big enough for a large, unforeseen contingency that could require tens of thousands of forces. And even absent such a mission, the Army needs forces to maintain even smaller deployments around the world.

But the bigger question is how the Army does the drawdown and who it cuts and who it doesn't. Those plans are still under wraps -- if they are even complete. But one thing every Army officer knows for sure is that while it's relatively easy for the Army to grow equipment and privates, it's quite another to grow a "professional middle." That's to say, if the Army guts career officers and enlisted personnel, it will take some time to get them back.

"You can't just make a major or a colonel or a sergeant major," the officer said.

Correction: Odierno was traveling through Asia when the Defense Department budget was unveiled Monday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Odierno had been at the Pentagon when the announcement was made.