A Green Beret who was awarded the Silver Star, then saw it stripped away because he killed a Taliban bombmaker, is telling why he did it, as conveyed in a CIA job interview he conducted nearly four years ago.
Maj. Matt Golsteyn said the insurgent was a known maker of improvised explosive devices and was in the presence of such components. He considered him an armed combatant, so he shot him.
Army Secretary John McHugh, who revoked the award, told The Washington Times through a spokesman that Maj. Golsteyn “assassinated an unarmed Afghan.”
Maj. Golsteyn’s explanation is contained in a CIA transcript obtained by The Times. His description of the battlefield shows how difficult it has been on the ground for Americans in Afghanistan. They are fighting an enemy who continually shifts between appearing as a harmless villager one day and an assassin the next.
The soldier’s words, and Mr. McHugh’s action, are now at the center of congressional talks. A Senate and House conference panel is in the final stages of a debate over the power of service secretaries to do what Mr. McHugh did: revoke valor awards without formal charges being filed.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, took up Maj. Golsteyn’s cause.
In the House Committee on Armed Services, Mr. Hunter won passage of an amendment to the 2016 defense budget/policy bill that would block a service secretary from doing what Mr. McHugh did.
Meanwhile, The Times has obtained excerpts from Maj. Golsteyn’s CIA polygraphed interview — the one that found its way to the Army, which then initiated the criminal investigation.
Maj. Golsteyn, who led a joint force of Marines, Special Forces soldiers and Afghans, said the bombmaker had been detained but then released because he had no explosives or components in his possession.
Later, the Green Beret came across the man at a compound devoted to IED-making and shot him. He believed he followed the rules of engagement since, in his mind, a Taliban with components for IEDs — the top killer of Americans in Afghanistan — is just as armed and dangerous as if he were carrying a rifle.
Maj. Golsteyn told the CIA interviewer: “So I’ve got a guy in the battlefield that I know is already responsible for the deaths of two, the making of countless IEDs, and whatever he’s committed before, he’s an open threat to the tribal leader in a very fragile process for us of getting some kind of popular support that allows us to get done what we want to get done. And he is a demonstrated threat to my guys. He’s — is a combatant, was a combatant when we picked him up and was going to continue to be a combatant. We were fighting. We were under attack at that point in time for six to eight hours a day.”
He said that during operations outside the wire, his men had been attacked 11 times by IEDs. They found nearly 40 bombs, some of them linked to the man Maj. Golsteyn killed.
The Green Beret described to the CIA interviewer what it was like trying to fight the insurgents in Afghanistan, knowing they are bad guys but not always having enough evidence to hold them. With the unarmed bombmaker, he said, it was different.
Maj. Golsteyn: “There’s hundreds of dudes that are caught all the time. We caught probably close to that number and released every one of them because there’s no point in it [to] just stop taking detainees. You know, I could have a guy that[‘s] standing, you know, a nice guy with a family standing against a wall pointing like, you know, just peeking out and like that guy cut off heads three weeks ago. He’s a Taliban tax collector, and this is what he’s doing, but I can’t do anything about that. With this guy in particular, with the IEDs as they were, he was a combatant and was going to go right back to continuing being a combatant. So by the letter of the law I’m wrong, but he never stopped being a combatant.”
Interviewer: “Yeah, I’m good with that.”
Maj. Golsteyn: “As to me he never stopped being a combatant.”
The Green Beret’s Silver Star was awarded for a separate operation during which he led an 80-man force on Feb. 20, 2010, in Helmand province against Taliban firing on their forward operating base. He repeatedly risked his life to move while under fire to command his troops and direct airstrikes.
Though the Army never charged the Green Beret, it sent him before a three-officer board of inquiry last month at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home to Army Special Operations Command. The Army sought a less-than-honorable discharge and assembled a prosecution team as if he were facing criminal charges.
After hearing witnesses and reviewing the CIA transcript, the board exonerated him of violating the laws of armed conflict in killing the Taliban.
However, the board did find him guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, and recommended a general discharge under honorable conditions.
Mr. Hunter has been circulating a Golsteyn position paper in hopes of persuading Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, and other senators to accept his language limiting service secretaries’ powers.
On Thursday, Mr. Hunter wrote to Mr. McHugh, asking him to change his mind in light of the board’s findings.
“I ask that you personally review his case — specifically, the full-length transcript of his CIA polygraph test — and consider restoring his combat valor award,” Mr. Hunter said. “At the very least, the Army should look to restore Golsteyn’s Silver Star, which was awarded him for heroism during an incident that occurred separately from the allegations that prompted the Army’s prolonged investigation.”
‘The distinguished act’
Mr. Hunter added a handwritten note under his signature: “Can we make this right? He’s a patriot & a warrior. Semper Fi!”
Lt. Col. Stephen J. Platt, spokesman for Mr. McHugh, issued a statement to The Times that said the Army secretary has no intention of changing his mind:
“As Mr. Hunter is well aware, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division found that there was probable cause to believe that Maj. Golsteyn committed the offenses of murder and conspiracy, and Maj. Golsteyn was reprimanded for violating the law of armed conflict. The fact that the Board of Inquiry did not specifically find that Maj. Golsteyn committed a law of armed conflict violation does not negate Maj. Golsteyn’s admission that he assassinated an unarmed Afghan and conspired to dispose of the body. We consider the matter closed.”
Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s chief of staff, said: “Then we’ll work to legislate it no matter how long it takes. Or we’ll get the next secretary or the one after that to make the change. It will happen, but it’s McHugh’s choice to be on the wrong side of things. The board resolved the issue in favor of Golsteyn. So essentially, McHugh is giving his own board the middle finger.”
Mr. McHugh had written to Mr. Hunter in February defending his decision.
“Every step in the process of investigating Maj. Golsteyn’s actions, and reviewing and subsequently revoking his valor awards, has been thorough, objective and justified,” he wrote. “The Army investigation demonstrated that Maj. Golsteyn’s service during or after the time of the distinguished act, achievement or meritorious service was not honorable.”
The Silver Star ranks third in precedence in combat valor awards, behind the Medal of Honor and the Army Distinguished Service Cross.
His award narrative says: “Captain Golsteyn was alone running in the open through enemy gunfire that had over 80 men pinned down, and from the crow’s nest on top of FOB McQueary it looked like Captain Golsteyn was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields.”