by Wade Sikorski
Sikorski is a farmer and rancher in Baker, Montana. , he holds a Ph.D in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a degree in Contemporary Political Theory. Before moving to Montana to write books and ranch, he worked as an assistant professor at New Mexico State University. He is active in the conservation movement and has written several books.
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Ryan Zinke, a former Navy Seal didn’t want to talk, but there he was, talking. His Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training might have taught him how to get out of tight spots, how to not talk, even if waterboarded, but now he was caught, captured by the much maligned mainstream media, and forced to talk. There was no escape. He had to debate his opponents. There were two of them, basically, the one he was running against and the Montana media, the one that was trying to figure out what he was running for, and both of them were talking democracy, accountability, and answering questions about where he would lead the nation.
Last fall, when Ryan Zinke was running as a Republican against John Lewis, the Democrat, to be Montana’s sole representative in Congress, he consistently led Lewis by significant margins in the polls. He perhaps felt there was no reason to risk his advantage by giving his opponent a chance to attack him in a debate. So, he took what many Montanans felt was the dishonorable way to victory: He refused to debate.
The Montana Democratic Party, the Lewis campaign, and various bloggers had a field day ridiculing the Navy Seal who was ducking out of a debate. A whole series of guest editorials in state newspapers attacked him for not debating. A Democrat party commercial also ridiculed him for not talking about his role in a political action committee that he had founded, for not talking about a series of election complaints filed against him, and for failing to release his military records.
And then, the Billings Gazette published an editorial saying Zinke had flunked the political courage test for refusing to debate, arguing that if he was going to represent the people of Montana, they had a right to know what he thought, how he would vote. Imagine that—being a Navy Seal, someone whose courage was supposed to be beyond question, and having the state’s largest newspaper telling everyone you flunked a political courage test. If war is politics by other means, courage, it would seem, is still the test of character in both.
Afraid of failing more tests of political courage, Zinke finally agreed to debate. Then things took an even more unfortunate turn.
The editor of the Billings Gazette, Darryl Ehrlich, had been joking with the Lewis camp for weeks about how to fill the hour-long debate if Zinke did not turn up, as he was threatening to do. Someone said that maybe Lewis could play a guitar. Several times after that, Ehrlich teased the Lewis campaign about making sure John was practicing on his guitar.
When the night of the debate came, Ehrlich asked Lewis as they were waiting with Zinke to go onstage if he had his guitar tuned. They laughed. Several minutes later, according to Ehrlich, Zinke said, “John plays the guitar. I waterboard.”
Such simple words, so admirably clear, so unambiguously precise, and yet so open to interpretation.
Unfortunately Ehrlich didn’t follow up on Zinke’s statement that he had waterboarded people. He later dismissed it as an off-hand comment, maybe a self-deprecating crack, a joke perhaps, though maybe also a veiled threat. And the Billings Gazette has not published a story since clarifying the issue, despite being sharply criticized for not following up.
So, months later, the question remains: What was it? A joke or a threat? Mere bluster or the terrible truth?
There are two separate issues here: One, a possible threat against an editor, and the other, the possibility Zinke tortured people. First the threat.
Zinke didn’t want to be at the debate, it should be remembered. Really did not want to be there. He was there because he was shamed into it, in no small part because Ehrlich had published an editorial calling his political courage into question. It is likely that Zinke resented the editor, and the point of his comment was to remind the editor of what kind of man he was, a Navy Seal who had done things, very possibly including waterboarding, that were not very funny at all.
So, actually, the joke was an anti-joke kind of joke, one that might make Ehrlich more carefully consider his options as an editor.
If you put it this way, a politician threatening an editor with violence because he didn’t want to answer questions about how he would lead the country, freedom of the press does become an issue. Editors are actually where freedom of the press happens. Writers, reporters, journalists, cartoonists, and various other kinds of artists might be the heroes of free speech, providing the content we argue over, but editors decide what gets published. The whole point of freedom of the press is for editors to be free to decide what gets published without anybody involved in government intimidating them. Freedom of the press is how government is held accountable, and so, even the slightest, most veiled, threat by a politician against an editor is unacceptable.
In the editorial where he reported Zinke’s off-hand comment, Ehrlich angrily denounced the Lewis camp for leaking the comment to the Los Angeles Times. He argued it was taking an off-hand comment too seriously, playing political gotcha.
But perhaps the Lewis camp was simply, if clumsily, trying to raise a legitimate issue that should have been raised long before. If Zinke has been involved in torturing people, and is an indictable war criminal, we need to know. Torture is a war crime, prohibited by the Geneva Convention, the Torture Convention, various domestic laws the military operates under, and by an American tradition that goes all the way back to General Washington, who famously issued an order against it.
But the editor might still have a point, at least if it is about Zinke saying crap that just can’t be taken seriously.
During the campaign, for instance, Zinke said that Hillary Clinton was the anti-Christ. (That’s one small insult by a man, one giant leap for womankind—final proof of Hillary’s awesomeness, if ever it were needed. For her to be nominated to the high office of anti-Christ, which had exclusively been reserved for men, shattered a glass ceiling in place for thousands of years.)
In an email to potential supporters, Zinke said that he took part in killing Bin Laden, even though he had retired from the Navy three years earlier. And, believe it or not, he claimed this after repeatedly attacking President Obama for using the raid for personal political gain.
In a TV interview on Newsmax, Zinke said that the first thing we need to do to deal with the ISIS invasion into Iraq is to secure our border with Mexico. Yes, that’s right, that’s the considered advice of a Navy Seal: ISIS invades Iraq, we need to stop it at the Mexican border. No need to worry about the long and almost unguarded border Montana has with Canada, or that terrorists might simply do what the 9/11 hijackers did, and get a visa and enter the country legally; we need to stop ISIS at the Mexican border.
In an email to his supporters he warned that a “leftist infiltration is going to take over the country because of the apathy of patriots.” And then he said that President Obama should be impeached for Benghazi. “He’s had six years of doing his will to this country, and I believe that’s intentional dismantling of American power both domestically and abroad,” Zinke told The Huffington Post. “So, is impeachment in the cards? Let’s hope we have the votes.”
This was not an isolated attack on Obama; it got worse. He told the Daily Inter Lake, “It’s time to stop President Obama from negotiating away our freedoms and our ability to win on the battlefield. For those who have taken an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, it is a call of duty to take back America from a commander-in-chief that is incapable of understanding the sacrifices that have been made for the values that have made America great.”
Think about that last one for a little bit—the “call to duty” from a former Navy Seal, addressed perhaps to his Seal peers, to “take back America” from their commander-in-chief? Doesn’t that sound just a little bit like a call for mutiny to you? Or actually, a lot?
Yes, Zinke was retired, and thus a civilian, when he said this, but he was a Seal once too, and so we must wonder: Are his words so impotent that other Seals would not take them seriously? He was one of them, and he also had some rank among them, which, one might imagine, meant at least once they took what he said seriously, and obeyed his orders. So, now that Zinke has issued his “call to duty” to take back America from our commander-in-chief, will the Seals still take orders from a man one of their own has said is betraying America and should be impeached?
Whether or not anyone is taking him seriously, Zinke is very seriously organizing his former colleagues in special operations to support his political ambitions, dangerously politicizing military organizations that are prohibited by law from becoming political. In 2012, Zinke organized a super PAC called Special Operations for America, to attack Obama on behalf of special operations personnel for “taking credit” for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. After the election he continued to take in a large amount of money, and then, just before he filed to run for Congress, he quit his PAC, turned over the leadership to another former Seal, and then became the primary beneficiary of the PAC he had created to attack Obama.
Yes, he actually did that. According to Mother Jones, this was an innovation in campaign financing first pioneered by Stephen Colbert that no one else took advantage of until Zinke came along. Isn’t that funny? Campaign financing has become so much a farce, politicians are now taking their leads from comedians.
Until Zinke got involved in politics, Seals were not known for talking much about what they do, and it might be agreed both left and right, though for different reasons, that Zinke has talked way too much, but now that he has started talking about torture, and about a “call to duty” to take back America from a president that he claims has betrayed us all, Zinke needs to talk a whole lot more. He needs to explain just what he meant when he said what he said–this time without all the crap.
Zinke is a Congressman now, setting national policy, not a Navy Seal, carrying it out. His words actually matter, even if he says them frivolously, for political effect. We might be tempted to dismiss what Zinke says as impotent and useless bluster, as the editor of the Billings Gazette seems inclined, but there is a limit to how much we can ignore the man’s crap. At some point, Zinke must be held accountable for what he says, what he has done, and what he proposes to do. It’s called democracy, holding leaders accountable.
In his comment to the editor of the Billings Gazette, Zinke suggested he waterboarded people. Of course we can’t take that as a confession, given his belligerent bluster, but we can take it as an invitation to investigate the possibility.
Here’s a beginning: As a Navy Seal, Zinke was under the command of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command . According to a page on Zinke’s campaign website, which has since mysteriously disappeared, he held various positions of leadership in the Seals, sometimes as the leader of Seal Team Six. In 2004, he eventually became the Deputy and acting Commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task ForceArabian Peninsula, where he led a force of over 3500 Special Operations personnel in Iraq, conducting 360 combat patrols, 48 direct action missions and hundreds of sensitive missions.
Zinke’s positions of leadership in JSOC in Iraq during the war are significant because if you were a president (or a vice president) who wanted to torture people, as both Bush and Cheney surely were, JSOC would be the preferred means. Unlike with the CIA or the regular military, Congress has not exercised its oversight powers over JSOC, and because so much of what it does is classified, oversight by the courts or the press doesn’t happen either. No one outside the executive branch asks what JSOC does, and JSOC never tells. It is like a ghost, there, but not really there.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, told Jeremy Scahill, a reporter for The Nation, that Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often bypassed traditional military command structure by relying on JSOC to carry out their orders.
According to the recent Senate investigation, the CIA tortured a couple dozen people. JSOC, which was barely mentioned in the investigation, very possibly tortured people by the thousands, using much harsher techniques, and potentially killing a much large number than the CIA.
According to Tim Heffernan, a reporter for Esquire magazine, an elite Army interrogator said that he witnessed both physical and mental torture at a U.S. base in Iraq operated by JSOC. In 2006, this interrogator, which Heffernan called “Jeff,” told Esquire that he had witnessed the physical and mental torture of at Camp Nama, which was, according to a tedious joke told whenever anyone asked about what happened there, short for NastyAss Military Area.
When “Jeff” objected to the treatment of prisoners there, he was reassured that the Red Cross would never know what went on there, and they would never be called to account. Under the Geneva Convention, to make sure no one is being tortured, the Red Cross is supposed to have access to all prisoners of war so that it can document their treatment. According to Jeff “Once, somebody brought (Red Cross access) up with the colonel. ‘Will they ever be allowed in here?’ And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in—they won’t have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators.”
According to an article in the New York Times written by Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall, JSOC routinely tortured people at Camp Nama in what was called the Black Room, where the rule was, “No Blood, No Foul.” As long as there was no blood, the presumption of the leaders operating the camp apparently went, there was no evidence, and no one would get prosecuted for anything they did.
But actually, not even that rule applied. “The reality is, there were no rules there,” another Pentagon official said, according to the New York Times article. At least several detainees were beaten until they died. The torture was so bad the CIA, incredible as it may seem given its own use of torture, bared its personnel from the camp so that they would not be implicated in anything JSOC did. The Human Rights Watch later published a lengthy report that expanded on the Times article.
Because of the secrecy that JSOC operates under, there is no public record of how involved Congressman Ryan Zinke was with the torture that happened while he was a leader in JSOC. Conceivably, it might be that he knew nothing of it, or that, if he did know, he was a restraining influence. However, given his elevated position in the chain of command, and the fact that he was promoted to it during a period when the Bush Administration was interested in finding ways to torture people, one might assume he did know, or even worse and more likely, was deliberately chosen because he was willing to carry out the Bush Administration’s illegal orders.
We don’t know what Zinke did while he was a Navy Seal, since the records are almost all classified, but we do know, at least as far as the issue of torture goes, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, serving in the wrong organization, under the wrong president (and, it should be added, the wrong vice president and the wrong secretary of defense), and, since he has retired, he has said all the wrong things, complaining endlessly about Obama’s restrictions on the rules of engagement, which presumably means limits on torture. Given all that, the worst is easy to imagine.
According to the Convention on Torture, every country that is a signatory–as the United States is–must investigate and prosecute all instances of torture. If they fail to do that–as the United States also clearly is–every other country that has signed the treaty has universal standing to prosecute. So, if Zinke goes abroad, he could be arrested and prosecuted as a war criminal.
Think of what that would feel like, to have our representative prosecuted in a foreign country for war crimes. The possibility is appalling. So, here’s the question we in Montana must ask: Is the man we just elected to Congress a war criminal? If it turns out he is, we cannot, we simply cannot, allow him to continue to represent us.