A decorated officer in an elite US Army unit killed an unarmed Taliban suspect in Afghanistan. Of that, there appears to be no doubt.
What is less certain is whether Major Matt Golsteyn, who has admitted to the killing, should be considered a cold-blooded killer or a war hero.
The Army last week charged Golsteyn, a Green Beret special operations reservist, with premeditated murder in the shooting death of an alleged Taliban bomb-maker in volatile Helmand province in 2010.
Though highly unlikely, he could ultimately face the death penalty.
Golsteyn’s case on Sunday was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, when President Donald Trump suggested he might intervene in the long-running legal saga.
“At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder,” Trump said on Twitter, having apparently seen a sympathetic segment about the case on Fox News.
“He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas,” Trump wrote.
Army investigators looked into Golsteyn in 2011 after he took a lie-detector test as part of a job interview with the CIA.
He reportedly told agents he had killed an unarmed, suspected bomb-maker detained by his unit, who he believed was responsible for the deaths of two Marines who had died in a roadside bombing.
According to court document excerpts, Golsteyn worried that the suspect, who he was unable to detain for more than 24 hours, might make more bombs and kill an Afghan tribal leader who had identified him.
Investigators have said Golsteyn and another soldier eventually took the suspect back to his house and killed him.
‘Unlawful command influence’
Legal observers pounced on Trump’s tweet, saying it could have a chilling effect on the prosecution and could amount to “unlawful command influence.”
As the commander-in-chief of the US military, Trump can technically take whatever action he likes in the prosecution of a service member, including issuing a full and pre-emptive pardon.
But “he shouldn’t be tweeting about it,” said Rachel VanLandingham, a former military prosecutor and law professor at Southwestern Law School, “as it sure seems to be a signal to lower-level commanders not to prosecute.”
“The president is not ensuring justice by his tweet. He is most likely obstructing it,” she told AFP.
Golsteyn was stripped of a medal and given other reprimands following the 2011 probe, but he was not criminally prosecuted.
Then in 2016, during an interview on Fox News, he said he had killed an Afghan man, prompting the Army to re-open the case.
Golsteyn’s attorney Phillip Stackhouse could not be reached for comment, but he told Fox the Army had sought initially to build a fake narrative in which his client “released this Taliban bomb-maker, walked him back to the house… and assassinated him in his house.”
As to why Golsteyn is being charged now, Stackhouse said: “The prosecutor in this case has intimated to me that they have new evidence.”
David “Bull” Gurfein, who runs United American Patriots, which is helping pay for Golsteyn’s defense, blasted the prosecution.
“Right now we have rules of engagement that are actually in favor of our enemies, as opposed to providing our warriors the ability to address real-world threats,” Gurfein told AFP.
Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter last week wrote to Trump asking him to look into Golsteyn’s case.
“He is not a murderer,” Hunter wrote.
“He is an elite warrior that was executing the mission he was trained to do. He engaged an Afghan bomb-maker, who had built the bomb that was responsible for the death of two Marines only days prior.”
But VanLandingham noted that the Army has a legal duty to investigate war crimes allegations.
“If the major admitted to others that he killed a detainee in US custody, other than in self-defense, that’s one of the most straightforward and long-standing war crimes there is, and the Army was legally bound to investigate,” she said.
“President Trump as commander-in-chief likewise has a legal duty to ensure war crime allegations are investigated and appropriately prosecuted, a duty his tweet seems to show he fails to understand.”
Military authorities have, to varying degrees of success, prosecuted dozens of cases against US troops accused of unlawful killings or prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In some cases, military jury members are willing to grant wide latitude to defendants, whose alleged wrongdoings occurred while fighting a deadly insurgency under frequently shifting rules of engagement.
Trump has intervened in at least one other military case, when as a candidate he branded as a “traitor” Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier and former Taliban captive.
First Published: Dec 18, 2018 13:41 IST
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