Army may fire sergeant who warned in email about disclosure of classified information

by WorldTribune Staff, March 27, 2017

An Army public affairs sergeant’s career is in jeopardy after he included information about a special operation unit’s role in the killing of Osama bin Laden in an unclassified email, a report said.

“The irony in the narrative of Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch is that his motive was to keep classified material away from public view,” Rowan Scarborough reported for The Washington Times on March 26.

Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch

The same information about the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), or “Night Stalkers,” can be found on Army.mil web pages and is also the same information former President Barack Obama spoke of in May 2011 when the he visited Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to personally thank SOAR for its role in killing bin Laden, the report said.

“The Army just doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that Obama told 2,000-plus Fort Campbell soldiers in a public forum after the private meeting with SOAR,” Sgt. Branch told The Washington Times.

Sgt. Branch has 10 days to persuade an Army command to reverse the decision to remove him from duty or else his 13-year career ends.

“I love the Army,” he said. “I like my job. The reason I’m so in love with the Army is I’m a career soldier. I’ve done three tours in Iraq. I’ve survived cancer twice. The Army is my career. It’s what I know. It is my life. My dad was a soldier. My brother’s a soldier. My grandfather was a soldier. I like telling the Army story because I’m a writer. That’s what I do.”

What Branch is accused of “is on its face far less serious than that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who faced no punishment for keeping classified data on her personal unsecured server,” Scarborough’s report said.

Branch’s ordeal began in February 2014 when he did public relations work for the SOAR regiment.

“Sgt. Branch reviewed a proposed article by the Boeing Co. for the defense contractor’s internal news service,” the Times report said. “The story told of 160th SOAR personnel visiting a Boeing unit in Mesa, Arizona, and mentioned that the aviation unit inserted the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

“Sgt. Branch realized that the Defense Department had never officially recognized that role. He thus sent an email to his public affairs boss saying that the officer should tell Boeing to delete that sentence.

“That was Sgt. Branch’s crime. He repeated the sentence in an official .mil email.”

A higher-up who saw the email thread then alerted Army intelligence and an investigation followed.

By April, Branch was offered the choice of facing a court-martial or agreeing to nonjudicial punishment known as an Article 15. He opted for the Article 15 hearing, at which he received an oral reprimand.

Branch believed the reprimand to be the end of the story.

He was transferred to Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, where he edited a peninsula-wide military newspaper.

“The Army had been gearing up a culling operation known as the Quantitative Management Program as budget cuts forced a reduction of thousands of active-duty personnel. The QMP identified blemished soldiers, and Sgt. Branchbecame one of them in 2015 because his seemingly innocuous Article 15 resulted in a one-time poor performance evaluation,” Scarborough’s report said.

That was all that was needed for “Big Army” in Washington to single him out for separation.

Former Army judge advocate Jeffrey Addicott, who represents, pro bono, military personnel he believes are unjustly prosecuted, said Branch would have won at court-martial.

“In my professional opinion as a JAG officer with 20 years in service and having tried over 150 cases, they would have not brought this to a court-martial if he had turned down the Article 15,” Addicott said. “There is no way the government would get a conviction, particularly based on the fact that President Obama had already released the information to the public. If they did bring it to a trial, Sgt. Branch would exercise his right to demand a jury, and they would never get a conviction.”

Branch took his case to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which could nullify his bad performance evaluation and remove the basis for early dismissal. But the board refused — twice.

“I laid out that I protected the information,” Branch said. “Boeing took out the point about bin Laden after I gave the guidance of basically recommending an op-sec [operational security] review. The info was safeguarded. Now you guys want to dismiss me.”

Branch went public last fall and appeared on the Fox TV station in El Paso, Texas.

“He told the news crew about the injustice of being fired for merely trying to prevent classified information from appearing in an industry newsletter,” the Times report said.

The Army command then notified Branch he was a target of the Criminal Investigation Command (CID). The action started before he appeared on TV.

Branch believes the new investigation was based on the information he inserted in his official appeal with the Army Board for Correction. There is also a chance the Army knew he had recorded the TV interview, the Times report said.

“Agents summoned him to an FBI office and ushered him into a secure room, or ‘skiff,’ to answer questions. As the session became more accusatory, he decided he needed a lawyer present and stopped talking.”

Last week, Branch said, his commander at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he is now stationed, notified him the CID cleared him of wrongdoing. “But that meant his service extension would end and the clock started again. He now must be out of the Army in 10 days,” the report said.

Addicott said he has been unable to persuade the Army to give him a copy of the CID investigation report to determine the exact allegation. He must file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Branch said he did learn he was suspected, but not charged, with disobeying a direct order by appearing on TV.

The sergeant wonders why he is being singled out.

“It makes no sense to dismiss me from service. Policy dictates that anything published on the Army home page has to be properly vetted through various organizations. Obamavisiting Campbell and talking about the bin Laden raid is considered mission and operational security info, [which] means it has to get vetted. It’s still on the home page today.”

The Times asked the 160th public affairs office why it punished a soldier for trying to keep classified material out of public view. The office did not respond.

On March 24, Branch was summoned for a meeting with his commanding officer and was handed a “counseling letter” that, in fact, served as his termination notice.

The letter said his security clearance was permanently revoked. It said there was probable cause he disclosed the 160th mission a second time, but there was insufficient evidence to seek a court-martial.

Branch said he believes the “second time” refers to his written appeals within the Army or possibly his command had heard that he was interviewed for the TV story the previous April. The segment aired in late September. The CID probe began Sept. 1.

Once he receives official notice from Maj. Gen. Robert P. White, 1st Armored Division Commander, he is to report to the Fort Bliss transition office, a final stop from soldier to civilian.

“I’m still waiting on the general and praying he sees me first in his open-door policy,” Branch said.

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