A former Army Green Beret officer who was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, for his actions in a fierce 2010 battle in Marjah, Afghanistan, was notified last week he is being charged by the Army with premeditated murder.
That officer is Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, a 2008 West Point graduate. The victim was an unarmed Afghan whom Golsteyn suspected of being a Taliban fighter who made a bomb that killed two Marines from his unit in the Marjah fighting.
Golsteyn said as much in an October 2016 interview broadcast on Fox News. “Did you kill the Taliban bomb maker?” Fox news anchor Brett Baier asked the former Green Beret.
“Yes,” Golsteyn replied.
Baier’s question referred to a three-year Army investigation of Golsteyn that began in 2011, the same year Golsteyn reportedly told the CIA about the killing during a polygraph test for a job interview.
That initial Army probe did not result in any formal charges against Golsteyn, but he was stripped of his medal as well as his Special Forces tab and put on extended leave.
It was Golsteyn’s public statement on Fox that prompted the second Army investigation, a probe that has now led to his being charged with murder.
The case got wide attention over the weekend when it was discussed on Fox News’ Fox and Friends morning show. It also caught the attention of President Trump, a regular viewer of Fox and Friends.
“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 tweeted minutes after the Fox discussion on Sunday morning. “He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas.”
Because Trump is the U.S. military’s commander in chief, some military legal experts are dismayed that he chose to weigh in publicly on a case which has not yet reached the stage of a court-martial.
“It’s clear, on its face, that this is unlawful command influence,” says Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor and judge who has presided over 330 courts-martial and written extensively on the law of war. “It gives the appearance, if nothing else, that the commander in chief is putting his thumb on the scales of justice.”
Solis’ chief concern is that Trump may set a new precedent by using his power to issue a preemptive pardon to Golsteyn.
“He should not be allowed to walk away from what he has admitted to doing,” Solis says of Golsteyn. “The message that sends, the precedent that it sets, is just too significant to allow to happen. … we can’t allow anyone in the armed services to admit to murder with no consequences.”
There was no reply to a request for comment from Golsteyn’s lawyer, San Diego-based Phillip Stackhouse.
Perhaps the former Green Beret’s greatest defender in Washington has been Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He is not a murderer,” Hunter wrote of Golsteyn last week in a letter to Trump. “He is an elite warrior that was executing a mission that he was trained to do. He engaged an Afghan bombmaker, who had built the bomb that was responsible for the death of two Marines only days prior.”
Hunter added that he believed the record would show Golsteyn’s actions were lawful, and that the Army has “failed one its most dedicated and faithful warriors.”
In his interview on Fox, Golsteyn argued that he killed the suspected Taliban fighter to prevent him from killing more U.S. troops as well as the Afghans who identified his affiliation.
“It is an inevitable outcome” Golsteyn said, “that people who are cooperating with the coalition forces, when identified, will suffer some terrible torture or be killed.”
Solis, who teaches the law of war at West Point, rejects Golsteyn’s rationale for what appears to have been a summary execution.
“He had to have known, as a captain in the Army, that what he was doing was wrong,” Solis says. “You and I and probably most of the public can appreciate what he was thinking and why he was doing it, and sympathize — but you can’t kill a prisoner. That’s it.”
“I’m just glad I’m not the convening authority who has to send him to court,” Solis adds, “but that’s where he has to go.”