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The Navy and the National Transportation Safety Board open investigations of the February 9 collision between the USS Greeneville, a fast-attack submarine, and a Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, in which nine Japanese crew members were killed. Three days later, the Navy reveals that two civilians were at the steering controls of the submarine when it surfaced and struck the vessel (see February 9, 2001). (Burns 2/14/2001) The Navy continues to refuse to release the names of the civilians on board, saying that all 16 wished to remain anonymous to protect their privacy. A spokesman for the Pacific Fleet says that the civilians were “corporate leaders—business leaders invited aboard to observe some of the training going on, see the hard-charging men in the sub force working as a team, defending their country and making sacrifices.” Later, press sources reveal that the two civilians at the controls were each at the helm and at the ballast controls, the two positions directly involved in the submarine’s sudden ascent. The Navy says it cannot confirm that the two civilians may or may not have caused the submarine to strike the fishing vessel or interfered with the submarine’s normal ascent, but claim that the civilians were under “close supervision.” (Waite and Gordon 2/14/2001; Hiller and Gordon 2/14/2005) Investigators are puzzled when the Navy tells them that no sonar or video recordings of the incident exist. (Burns 2/14/2001) A spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry informs the US Pacific Fleet that “[i]f this was true, then the Japanese government will have to take this very seriously.” A former nuclear sub commander says that the civilians could not have affected the submarine’s course: “They’re not really doing anything,” he says of civilians aboard the submarine. “It’s like sitting him on a desk with a cup of coffee. It’s like he’s a passenger on a Greyhound bus watching the scenery fly by.” The first mate of the Ehime Maru crew disagrees: “A civilian wouldn’t know what to do” at the controls, he says. “I don’t know if the emergency surfacing was a drill or what, but it’s absolutely unforgivable if a civilian was operating it.” (Apgar 2/14/2001) Five days after the accident, it will be revealed that the 16 civilians aboard were there at the invitation of retired Admiral Richard Macke, a former commander of US forces in the Western Hemisphere who was forced to retire in 1998 for making inappropriate comments about the rape of a young Okinawan girl. (Waite and Gordon 2/14/2001) As the days go by, the identities of the civilians on board begin to be known. Several are involved with the USS Missouri restoration fund, to which Macke is connected. Houston oil executives John Hall and Todd Thoman were also on board; Hall identifies himself as one of the two civilians at the controls. (Apgar 2/14/2001) “I was to the left in the control room, and I was asked by the captain if I would like the opportunity to pull the levers that start the procedure that’s called the blowdown,” Hall will tell the press. “I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do that.’” He says that a crew member was “right next to me, elbow to elbow. I mean, what’s important to know here is you don’t do anything on this vessel without someone either showing you how to do it, telling you how to do it, or escorting you around.” Thoman tells reporters that the crew executed two complete periscope sweeps of the ocean surface before surfacing. As the submarine surged upward, Hall remembers, “there was a very loud noise and the entire submarine shuddered.” The same day that Hall and Thoman speak, the Navy confirms that the Greenville was 3,000 miles out of the designated submarine test and trial area; previously it had maintained that the sub was well within the 56-mile area. (Christensen 2/15/2001) As the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that at least one sailor was distracted by the civilians aboard, to the point where he was unable to completely plot the locations of surface vessels. It is also discovered that the submarine detected the Ehime Maru by sonar an hour before the collision. A former sub commander says, “If the guy was distracted, he should have spoken up and said these guys are bothering me and I can’t do my work.” However, he says, the sailor could have been intimidated by the presence of so many powerful civilians as well as the chief of staff for the US Pacific Fleet’s submarine force, Captain Bob Brandhuber, who was escorting the civilians. Another formerl naval commander says, “He should have yelled at the top of his lungs: Stop, shut up.” Still, the fact that the sub lost track of the fishing vessel is “inexcusable,” the former commander says. “The sensitivity of the sonar once you have it, you don’t lose it.…It was making noise the entire time. They should never have lost it, no matter the target angle of the ship, they could still hear it.” (Gordon, Nakaso, and Waite 2/22/2001) Commander Scott Waddle, the captain of the Greeneville, initially defends the presence of the civilians on board his sub, but in April 2001 says he has changed his mind: “Having them in the control room at least interfered with our concentration.” He also confirms that the only reason the Greeneville put to sea on February 9 was that Macke intended to treat his distinguished visitors to a submarine ride. “The program was set up by the Navy to win favor for the submarine service from Congressmen and other opinion leaders,” Time magazine reports, “and the Greeneville had made several such trips for visitors under Waddle’s command. Not only did the visitors crowd the control room, but because Waddle spent so much time with them over lunch, the ship also fell behind schedule, giving Waddle added impetus to move quickly through the series of maneuvers he had designed to impress them.” (McCarthy and McCabe 4/15/2001) A month later, a Greeneville sailor will testify that the sub had been violating standard procedures for nearly four years by routinely using unqualified sonar technicians to track surface vessels. (Nakaso 3/17/2001) In late March, the editor of a journal published by the US Naval Institute in Annapolis will accuse the Navy of “stonewalling” the investigation, and says that the entire incident is a “public relations fiasco.” (Omicinski 3/27/2001) Waddle will be allowed to retire instead of facing court martial, though he will be found guilty of dereliction of duty and held responsible for the accident. (Tyler and Sumida 10/22/2005) “I didn’t cause the accident. I gave the orders that resulted in the accident,” he will say in April 2001. “And I take full responsibility. I would give my life if it meant one of those nine lives lost could be brought back.” (McCarthy and McCabe 4/15/2001) Only well after the incident is under investigation does further investigation find that many of the 16 civilians on board the submarine are highly placed members of the oil and energy industries, and many well connected to the Republican Party and the Bush family.
One passenger, Helen Cullen, owns Houston’s Quintana Petroleum and is a heavy donor to the GOP and the Bush campaign; her family has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the GOP. (Lindsay 2/21/2001)
Three other passengers head the Houston-based Aquila Energy, which has financial ties to the GOP. (Milbank and Allen 3/26/2002)
Another passenger, Mike Mitchell, is the managing director of EnCap Energy Advisors, a Dallas firm with ties to the Bush business family. (Ratcliffe 9/16/2002)
John Hall is a well-known and well-connected Texas oilman who is a major player in a number of multimillion-dollar oil deals, many involving business cronies of the Bush family. And the honorary chairman of the USS Missouri Restoration Fund, the sponsor of the entire contingent of civilians, is former president and Texas oil billionaire George H.W. Bush. (Nakaso 2/18/2001; Baker 2/19/2001)
It is also discovered during the investigation that the Greeneville would not have sailed that day if not for the contingent of what the Navy terms “distinguished visitors” who wanted to take a ride on a submarine. Vice-Admiral John Nathman, who will head the Navy’s board of inquiry, will say of the Greeneville’s voyage, “In my view this doesn’t fit the criteria. It doesn’t come close.…I would never get a carrier underway to support a DV (distinguished-visitor) embark. We’re going to disagree on that.” (Savidge 3/16/2001; Kakesako 3/17/2001) An e-mail sent to the Navy’s public relations office says that the Greenville was slated to play host to “/10 or 12 high-rolling CEOs” finishing a golf tournament. Nathman will call it “Disneyland on a submarine.” (Kakesako 3/17/2001; Associated Press 3/22/2001) Reflecting on the accident two months later, Time Magazine will write, “The sinking of the Ehime Maru resonated around the world. It was the first major foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Bush Administration. In Japan it contributed to the fall from power of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who shocked public opinion by continuing a golf game even after he heard of the accident. The Pentagon fretted about damage to the already fragile military alliance with Japan. The Japanese families of the nine dead were left in shock and grief.” (McCarthy and McCabe 4/15/2001)
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