WASHINGTON—In a rare display of public dissent by an active-duty officer, the former skipper of the USS Cole on Thursday sharply criticized the Navy for reversing a military promotion board's recommendation to advance him to captain.
Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was at the helm of the Cole when the bombing in the Yemen port of Aden killed 17 sailors on Oct. 12, 2000, said Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, informed him of the decision in a personal meeting last week.
"I am, of course, extremely disappointed by the about-face on the part of Navy leadership," Lippold said. "No new facts about the terrorist attack on the USS Cole or my performance of duty as her commanding officer prompted the change. Indeed, the findings still stand that nothing I could have done as commanding officer would have prevented the attack or its results."
Lippold's status has undergone extraordinary review for four years in Congress, at the White House and within the Pentagon. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has protested the promotion for much of that period in numerous meetings and in conversations with senior military officials.
During an unprecedented session convened at Warner's request, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reaffirmed the Pentagon's support for Lippold's promotion in 2004. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, sought President Bush's intervention.
"The Navy has twice previously supported me, the president previously supported me, the secretary of defense previously supported me, the Joint Chiefs of Staff previously supported me and its chairman previously supported me," Lippold said.
Two Pentagon investigations of the Cole attack exonerated Lippold and spread blame across his chain of command.
Cmdr. David Werner, a Navy spokesman, said Thursday that Navy Secretary Donald Winter initiated a review of the Lippold case after assuming the service's top civilian post in January.
"The secretary deemed it was his responsibility to do his own review of the pertinent material and draw his own conclusion about Commander Lippold's fitness for promotion," Werner said.
Werner didn't say why Winter reversed the pro-Lippold position of previous Navy secretaries, chiefs of naval operations and other senior officials.
A military lawyer in the Navy judge advocate general's office is investigating whether the review was conducted properly, according to Navy sources.
Lippold, 47, now holds a desk job at the Pentagon. The commander said he met with Warner, a Virginia Republican, on Aug. 1, shortly after a separate meeting with Winter.
Warner denies that he is blocking Lippold's promotion, but he had threatened to hold hearings on the Cole attack if the Pentagon resubmitted it. Since it was first forwarded in 2002, the Armed Services Committee has returned the promotion twice without action.
"Given the fact that the USS Cole tragedy was one of the largest single-incident losses of life in recent history, Chairman Warner felt that the committee and the Senate would expect nothing less than a full examination, and that would require a public hearing," John Ullyot, a spokesman for Warner, said Thursday.
Lippold became eligible for retirement in 2001 after 20 years' service in the Navy. He faces mandatory retirement in June 2009 and said he hasn't decided whether to retire earlier.
In an ironic twist, Lippold delivers dozens of Pentagon-approved "lessons learned" lectures about the Cole attack to future commanding officers at Navy training schools.
Retired Cmdr. Bob Brogan, who was Lippold's ROTC instructor at Carson City High School in Nevada, said the Navy brass has made a scapegoat of his former student.
"It's the most dastardly deed I've ever seen them do," Brogan said. "It's almost criminal what they've done to the man. They've taken the joint responsibility of the whole Navy hierarchy and laid it right on his shoulders and crushed him."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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