Why Navy Said No to Court-Martial of Sub Captain

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STEVE LISS/GAMMA FOR TIME

Scott Waddle: Will not face a court-martial

Scott Waddle's future will not be determined in a courtroom. According to Pentagon reports, Pacific Fleet commander-in-chief Admiral Thomas Fargo has recommended that Waddle, the beleaguered captain of the ill-fated USS Greeneville, not face a court-martial.

On February 9, the Greeneville, demonstrating its maneuvers for an on-board civilian audience, struck the Japanese fisheries training boat Ehime Maru, killing nine passengers. The disaster strained U.S. relations with Japan and raised serious questions about the U.S. Navy's practice of taking civilians onto active military vessels.

Bacause Fargo has reportedly accepted the panel's recommendation, Waddle will face alternative, non-criminal penalties, possibly including a letter of reproof and the reduction of his retirement benefits.

What does Fargo's decision mean for the Navy? TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson weighed in on the current state of the Greeneville investigation.

TIME.com: What, exactly, is the difference between a court-martial and the lesser punishment Admiral Fargo has reportedly decided upon?

Mark Thompson: A court-martial is a criminal proceeding, while an "admiral's mast," which is what the panel is recommending, is known as a non-judicial proceeding, or NJP. An admiral's mast is handled without prosecutors and can be done privately; it would render an administrative, non-judicial punishment. In a court-martial, a jury deliberates and delivers a verdict. An NJP is more a tug-of-war; Waddel and Fargo are likely to meet privately and Fargo will detail his concerns — and mete out the punishment.

Can you conceive of any situation in which Waddle might have been court-martialed?

Sure — if Waddle had been drinking, for example, or if he'd been doing something out of the ordinary, there would absolutely be a push to bring more serious charges against him.

What's the prevailing sentiment about Waddle in the Navy these days?

Everyone is thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I." The Navy knows that if you court-martial Waddle, you've got to court-martial everyone above him in the chain of command, because they allowed all of this to go on. Everyone's guilty — and so no one is guilty.

Is Waddle's career over at this point?

His Navy career is absolutely over, kaput. You just can't rebound from something like this. He'll probably retire effective next month, which is his 20th anniversary in the Navy. And since his pension is dependent on his rank when he leaves, he'll want to hang on to his rank through the next few weeks if at all possible.

So what does the Greeneville collision mean for the future of civilian visitations?

They'll continue, but there will be more rules. For example, I don't think civilians will be allowed at the controls of the sub. Even if having people around some of the controls played no role in this tragedy, the idea of it spooked a lot of people. There will probably also be limits on how many people can be on board at one time, and once they're on board, civilians will be told to just stand there and be part of the furniture.

Were these trips fund-raising events?

Not at all — this was all about schmoozing with the Navy, sending high-profile types out to see how things work so those folks would go back and spread the word. It's a public relations gesture to the local communities. And it's a good idea — unless journalists and other civilians actually go out there with the Navy and other branches of the military, it's impossible for the rest of us to know exactly how things work, and what goes on out there. And the trips should continue, once the snags and problems that led to this tragedy have been worked out and corrected.

For example, they took this particular trip as a sightseeing spree, specifically for the sake of the visitors. And that practice will definitely stop. They also left behind a large part of the ship's crew. That sort of thing will also not happen again.

There's quite a bit of anger in Japan over this investigation; a lot of people there would prefer to see criminal charges brought against Waddle. What can be done to appease the malcontents?

At this point, I have no idea. I don't know if they want to see Waddle's head on a platter, but that's not going to happen. Look, mistakes happen, accidents happen, and what happened here is a terrible tragedy. Apologies have been made again and again, and now we need to get on with things — to use what we've learned from our mistakes.