By Steve Gorman
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A decorated Navy SEAL platoon leader charged with war crimes in Iraq appeared in a San Diego military court on Wednesday for a hearing focused on allegations by his attorneys that prosecutors engaged in illegal snooping on the defence team and journalists.
The hearing comes less than a week before Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher is scheduled to go on trial in a court-martial charging him with murdering a helpless, wounded Islamic State fighter in his custody and shooting unarmed civilians.
Defense assertions that the Navy prosecutor, together with agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and presiding judge, have engaged in wrongdoing could lead to a substantial delay in further proceedings.
Gallagher has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including premeditated murder, two counts of attempted murder and obstructing justice.
His defence attorney, Timothy Parlatore, has accused Navy lawyers of conducting illegal surveillance of defence attorneys and reporters with electronic tracking software secretly embedded in emails.
The software ostensibly was used in an effort to pinpoint the source of confidential information leaked to the press.Navy officials have declined to comment on those allegations, and much of the court record has been sealed.
NCIS has previously issued a statement saying it used "an audit capability" in its investigation of leaks but insisted it did not involve "malware" or other technology to infect or compromise a computer system.
U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on the case publicly in March when he ordered Gallagher moved to less restrictive pre-trial confinement "in honour of his past service to our country."
The New York Times has reported that Trump was reviewing Gallagher's case for a possible pardon, along with several other U.S. military personnel accused or convicted of war crimes.
Parlatore has denied knowing anything about a pardon. "We've not asked for one," he told Reuters on Tuesday.
The stakes are high for Gallagher, 39, a career combat veteran and two-time Bronze Star recipient who began his Navy service as a medic. The case stems from his latest deployment to Iraq in 2017.
Gallagher asserts he is wrongly accused and that fellow SEAL team members testifying against him - several under grants of immunity - are disgruntled subordinates who fabricated allegations to force him from command.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman, additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Susan Thomas)