Navy fires captain of aircraft carrier over leak of letter to leadership

Capt. Brett Crozier had asked that most of the crew be taken off the ship.

The captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has been relieved of duty for exercising "poor judgment" in not safeguarding information in a letter to Navy leadership that was leaked to a newspaper. The letter requested that most of the ship’s crew of 5,000 be taken off the ship to contain the spread of novel coronavirus.

Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy, said Thursday at a hastily called Pentagon briefing that Capt. Brett Crozier was being relieved for a loss of confidence and poor judgment.

"I lost confidence in his ability to lead that warship as it continues to fight through this virus, get the crew healthy, so that it can continue to meet its national security requirements," said Modly.

In a letter to Navy commanders that was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. Crozier used blunt language to senior commanders urging that most of his crew of 5,000 be sailors be removed from the ship to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

"Sailors do not need to die," he wrote in the letter that led to a firestorm of controversy.

Modly made clear he did not fault Crozier for wanting to protect his crew, but took issue with how he did not express his concerns with his immediate supervisor, the rear admiral aboard the ship who was in charge of the Roosevelt carrier strike group.

"He's being relieved because to me that demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis," said Modly. "Because of what it's done, it's has created a firestorm. It's created doubts about the ship's ability to go to sea if it needs to. It's created doubt among the families, about the health of their sailors."

Modly said he had no information to indicate that Crozier personally leaked the letter, but noted that in emailing it to 20-30 people he provided an opportunity for the letter to be leaked.

"He did not safeguard that information and to keep it from being sent anywhere," said Modly.

"That was a completely unnecessary thing to do in the midst of a crisis," said Modly who added that he expects more from a commander responsible for an aircraft carrier.

"Granted, they don't train for this, but we expect more from our COs (commanding officers) than what they trained for, we expect them to exercise good judgment that does not put their crews in jeopardy," he said.

In the letter, Crozier asked Navy leaders to accelerate the removal of most of his 5,000 sailors from the carrier to facilities on Guam to stop the spread of the coronavirus aboard the ship. As of Thursday, 114 sailors aboard the carrier have tested positive for the virus said a U.S. official.

Crozier also asked that his sailors be moved from communal facilities ashore to individual housing to conform with coronavirus safety guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to Modly, by the time Crozier had written his letter the Navy already had plans to move 2,700 sailors off the carrier and was looking for hotel rooms so they could quarantine and isolate properly. The Navy said Wednesday that it would achieve that goal by the end of the week.

On Wednesday Modly had said that Crozier would not be disciplined for having expressed his concerns through the chain of command.

However, he left the door open for discipline if it was proven that Crozier had leaked the letter himself.

Modly said the incident with Crozier's letter was "frustrating because of what it does."

"It undermines our efforts -- and the chain of command's efforts -- to address this problem and creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government's not on the job, and it's just not true," he said.

Modly said he had not felt any political pressure in making his decision and said he had never consulted the White House on the matter. He did say that he had told Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday that he was leaning towards relieving Crozier and that Esper said he would support the move.

The decision drew criticism from Democratic members of Congress.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Modly had informed him beforehand of the firing "and indicated this was a difficult decision, but one he and the Navy chain of command believes is necessary. "

Reed said that he stressed to Modly "that naval leadership must make it absolutely clear the decision to relieve Captain Crozier is in no way interpreted as inhibiting any commanding officer from taking necessary steps, through their chain of command, to protect fellow sailors and Marines."

The top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee issued a statement calling Crozier’s removal "a destabilizing move" and "an overreaction."

"Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt," Reps. Adam Smith, Joe Courtney, John Garamendi and Rep. Jackie Speier wrote.

"What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense," they added. "Dismissing a commanding officer for speaking out on issues critical to the safety of those under their command discourages others from raising similar concerns."

Speier said in a separate statement that the subcommittee she chairs plans to investigate the circumstances surrounding Crozier’s firing calling it a "heinous act of whistleblower retaliation."

ABC News' Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.