When the Department of Defense writes or reviews a story for publication, it’s normal practice for public affairs experts to perform a SAPP review. SAPP, which stands for Security, Accuracy, Propriety and Policy, certifies publically released information doesn’t contain sensitive information.
For one Army public affairs noncommissioned officer, whose motives were simply to keep sensitive, previously released information out of public view, a SAPP review is the genesis for his potential exit from the Army.
The Army’s plan is to boot Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch, a 13-year public affairs sergeant, for including in an unclassified government e-mail the same information about a special operations unit and Osama bin Laden found on Army.mil web pages.
The Washington Times reports Branch’s disclosure in a private Army email is also the same information as told by his commander in chief, then President Barack Obama, in May 2011 when the president visited Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to personally thank the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), or “Night Stalkers,” for its critical role in killing al Qaeda leader — Osama bin Laden.
“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,” Branch tells The Washington Times.
Branch, now stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, has 10 days to persuade Army leadership to reverse the decision or else his beloved career ends.
BEGINNING OF THE END
The story begins in February 2014, when Branch was serving as public affairs for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).
Branch’s task was to review a proposed article by the Boeing Co. for the defense contractor’s internal news service, according to The Washington Times.
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.
Branch realized the DoD had never officially released that information. He thus sent e-mail to his Public Affairs Officer (PAO) advising that the PAO should tell Boeing to delete that sentence.
That was Branch’s crime. He repeated the sentence in official “.mil” email.
Truth be told, there is no crime here. The SAPP process worked. It did exactly what it’s intended to do, and Branch performed his duties exactly how he was trained, and within the letter of the law.
He identified a potential problem and provided trusted counsel to his PAO.
However, that’s not how the Army sees it. The Washington Times reports that a few days later, Branch learned a higher-up had seen the email thread and subsequently alerted Army intelligence. Branch was ordered home, and an investigation ensued.
By April he was offered a choice: Face a military court martial or agree to non-judicial punishment known as an Article 15.
Rather than risk a criminal conviction, he opted for the Article 15 hearing, at which he received an oral reprimand.
This is normally where the story ends; however for Branch, the nightmare is just beginning.
Time passes, and Branch is assigned to Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, where he’s serving as editor for a peninsula wide military newspaper.
At the same time, the Army begins spinning up the Quantitative Management Program (QMP) as budget cuts forced a reduction of thousands of active-duty personnel.
The QMP board is used to identify soldiers’ past evaluations and disciplinary records, and Branch, who has three combat tours under his belt, became one of those targeted for involuntary separation in 2015 because his seemingly harmless Article 15 resulted in a one-time poor performance evaluation.
Branch, 34, told The Washington Times he loves the Army, and that he believed he’d be a career soldier.
“I love the Army,” Branch 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.”
In recent months, Branch’s case has been taken up by a former Army judge advocate, Jeffery Addicott, who directs the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio, Texas. Addicott represents, pro bono, military personnel he deems are being unfairly prosecuted.
“At a time when President Trump is calling for the buildup of our military, and rightfully so, it is ironic that the Army is seeking to jettison a dedicated, three-time Iraqi War veteran,” Addicott told The Washington Times.
Branch and Addicot are now wishing the veteran had never agreed to the Article 15.
“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, Branch would exercise his right to demand a jury, and they would never get a conviction.”
In his appeals to the Army, Branch writes the SAPP review worked, and that even though the contested information had been previously released; Boeing took action and removed the contentious information from its story.
“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 OPSEC [operational security] review. The info was safeguarded. Now you guys want to dismiss me.”
Determined to continue his career, Branch stepped outside of the chain-of-command and held an interview with Fox TV in El Paso, Texas — his leadership wasn’t too amused with his course of action and notified him he was now a target of the Criminal Investigation Command (CID) saying the action started before he went on TV.
Branch isn’t sure why there’s a new investigation, but speculates it’s based on information he forwarded to the Army Board of Appeals.
The Army NCO portrays himself as a committed soldier who has endured. He has undergone three tours in Iraq as well as two surgeries to remove a cancerous thyroid gland. He said the Army’s aggression toward him hasn’t only affected him, it’s taking a toll on his family as well.
“My wife delivered three weeks early because of high blood pressure from stress as a result of our fight for me to stay in the Army,” he told The Washington Times.
Branch said his family spent “every dime they had” on a lawyer before turning to Addicott and his terrorism law center.
On Friday he 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 of counseling 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 tells The Washington Times 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 in the shift 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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