The decision to take the case away from Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley follows criticism from lawyers for the accused pilots that the three-star general was predisposed to find the pilots guilty, officials said Friday.
The day after the deadly nighttime accident near Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, Moseley sent a message to commanders saying that it was "difficult to imagine a scenario" for not holding fire in a circumstance like that which faced F-16 pilots Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach.
The U.S. investigation faulted both Schmidt and Umbach, who was the lead pilot, for failure to follow established procedures. Specifically they were accused of failing to "exercise appropriate flight discipline."
Schmidt dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers who were conducting an exercise. The bomb killed four soldiers and wounded eight. Schmidt, apparently unaware the exercise was taking place, was said to have mistaken ground fire from the exercise for hostile fire.
An air controller told Schmidt to hold fire until further inquiry could determine for sure that the target on the ground was hostile. Schmidt nonetheless declared he was "rolling in self-defense" and dropped his bomb.
A military inquiry concluded in June that Schmidt and Umbach were largely to blame for the bombing, although it also found undisclosed problems in the pilots' command structure. A decision on disciplinary action was left to Moseley, the senior Air Force officer in Central Command, which is running the war in Afghanistan.
An Air Force statement Friday said the decision authority has been transferred to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force, based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Charles Gittins, a civilian attorney for Schmidt, welcomed the move.
"I am always in favor of unbiased review by decision-makers who have not already made up their minds," Gittins said Friday. "I view the transfer as a positive step, so long as the new reviewing authority actually does his own personal and critical evaluation without influence from past reviewers."
The decision to take the case out of Moseley's hands was made by Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander of Air Combat Command.
The Air Force statement said the main reason for the change was "to prevent the perception of any conflict of interest" on Moseley's part. In his role as air component commander for the war in Afghanistan, Moseley had ultimate command over the F-16 pilots during their April 17 mission.
The Air Force also said Moseley's responsibilities in the Afghanistan war as well as his oversight of Operation Southern Watch - the aerial monitoring of the skies over southern Iraq - "could preclude him from devoting the time and attention" the Canadian friendly fire case deserves.
Carlson, who had no prior involvement in the case, will review the final report of the joint U.S.-Canadian investigation and then decide what, if any, disciplinary action to take against the pilots. The investigation report, which has not been publicly released, is about 4,000 pages long, an official said.
Moseley, who has had the case since late June, made no recommendation to Carlson on how to proceed and has not discussed the case with him, said Col. Johnny Whitaker, chief spokesman at Air Combat Command.
The Moseley memo that drew criticism from the pilots' defense attorneys was first reported by The Washington Times.
"There is a well-defined mechanism to ensure you and I do not engage friendly forces," Moseley said in the memo. "It is difficult to imagine a scenario, other than troops in contact, whereby we will not have time to egress the threat area, regroup, deconflict and then engage in a well-thought-out and coordinated plan that ensures success."
Among the disciplinary actions that Moseley had been contemplating was convening a hearing that could lead to a court-martial of the two pilots.
By Robert Burns
By Robert Burns