June 8th, 2014

Gen. Mattis: “…We no longer have that concern that they have this pawn that they can then play against us” on CNN’s State of the Union

Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Gen. James Mattis (Ret.) former commander of the U.S. Central Command, Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.) and Lt. Gen Jerry Boykin (Ret.), spoke to Crowley in a panel about their reactions to the Bergdahl swap, concerns over the release of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and how the Bergdahl family is handling the death threats they have received.

On the aftermath of the Bergdahl swap, Gen. Mattis said to Crowley, “…we no longer have that concern that they have this pawn that they can then play against us. So there’s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in their — in captivity.”

A transcript of the discussion is available after the jump.


CROWLEY: An FBI special agent tells CNN investigators are looking into threats against Bowe Bergdahl’s parents after a week of harsh criticism directed at Bergdahl and his family. With me now, retired Major General Paul Eaton, retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin — they both served in the Army — also with us, U.S. Marine Corps retired General James Mattis.

I want to start with you, General Mattis, because you have been in touch with the Bergdahl family throughout this ordeal. Now we’re hearing about these death threats. How are they handling it, and what can you tell us about them?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, they’re handling it OK, Candy. I mean, how does anyone handle a death threat against them? They’re keeping their balance, but it’s an unfortunate aspect of this whole situation I think.

CROWLEY: It is, General. What is the nature of these threats? Are they coming by e-mail? Are they — can you tell the seriousness of them? What do you know about them?

MATTIS: I don’t want to discuss that aspect, other than to say the FBI and the police are taking the threats seriously, Candy.

CROWLEY: Of course.

So much has been said this week about the sergeant and about his parents. There’s criticism that his father’s beard made him look like a Taliban, that he has been sympathetic to terrorists and sympathy with his son’s captors. There are those who object to the fact that he spoke Pashto to his son in the Rose Garden.

You know these people personally. Tell me about the parents.

MATTIS: Well, these are two salt-of-the-earth people. They’re regular old Americans.

I think most of us got over judging people by the length of their hair by about 1975 in this country. They have been through an extremely coercive experience.

Just think where you and I have been, Candy, for the last four or five years and thinking of every day in their position, wondering if they’re going to get that knock on the door saying that this enemy has killed their son.

So you can imagine what it’s like to have gone through something like this for them, and I think a certain amount of compassion is appropriate for a family that’s been through this.

CROWLEY: And we are now beginning to learn some details, at least details through those apparently who have been with the sergeant, who say that he was held in a cage, that he was, in fact, in the dark, that he tried twice to escape, some talk about his condition now.

Are they privy to these assessments? How are they taking it?

MATTIS: They have been kept posted on the intelligence we received, and they have been concerned, obviously, that their son — that their son was in the hands of a group like this.

This is a murderous group. This is a group that has considered it good tactics to kill innocent people, Afghans, to attack our forces. So, clearly, they have been concerned all along, Candy. It’s understandable.

CROWLEY: And, finally, because I want to bring in my other generals — but, finally, how would you describe their mood? Because what a week. They learned that their son is in U.S. hands and then this sort of firestorm about who they are and who he was and the circumstances surrounding his capture. What’s their mood right now?

MATTIS: Well, you know, Sandy (sic), this is not a soldier.

This is a U.S. soldier. We bring our people home. And they have known all along that we were committed to getting their son home. And I think that’s been an anchor for them through all of this, that the military stands by them.

Now, we have obviously got to look into the circumstances of his disappearance. And the U.S. Army has proven quite capable of maintaining good order and discipline if, in that investigation, they find that there was a point where Bowe let us down.

But, at the same time, they are so happy to have him out of the enemy’s hands and relieved that he’s in — getting good care right now in Germany. And they’re looking forward to a reunion, obviously, with their son.

CROWLEY: General Boykin, General Eaton, let me bring the two of you in and try to turn the corner, saying — first to you General Boykin, from all that you know of Sergeant Bergdahl and all that you know about this swap for his release, what do you think of the swap?

LT. GEN. JERRY BOYKIN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think this — this swap has to be put in perspective.

First of all, I have a high regard for my esteemed colleagues, but I disagree with them, because I think that he is a deserter. I think that all the evidence is there. I have never seen people line up against an individual in their platoon the way they have in this situation.

And I would — I am not dismissing what I believe is truthful testimony by some honorable men that served. And I believe he was a deserter. Desertion in time of war is punishable by death. So what we did is we traded…

CROWLEY: I’m sorry. Are you suggesting that — that if it’s found to be that he deserted when the Army does its investigation, that that’s a…

BOYKIN: No, that’s not my point.

My point is that we have traded for a guy that is guilty of a crime that is actually punishable by death, we traded him for five of the worst Taliban leaders in Guantanamo, two of which are mass murderers, all of which will be back on the battlefield and all of which will be threats, not only to Americans there, but to the Afghan people, because before we got there, they were killing Afghans in brutal ways.

So I don’t think that we came out ahead on this thing, and I question the — just really the very ethics of this kind of trade.

CROWLEY: General Eaton, let me get your take on this, because those are very different takes.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL EATON (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Candy, the whole fabric of the U.S. military is based upon the fact that we do not leave a fallen comrade.

We teach it to every soldier, to every Ranger, every special operator. We teach it to armies that we train. My Army training program in Iraq, we taught it to every Iraqi soldier. And it worked. They don’t leave their fallen comrade. And we had to bring Bergdahl back.

CROWLEY: Next — I have got to take a quick break here, but I want to ask you to weigh in on the threat or maybe not a threat that you believe is posed by the release of these five Taliban leaders — right after the break.


CROWLEY: We are back with our generals.

Gentlemen, I think we have established that you have some difference of opinion about Bergdahl and the release. I want to look at the other side of the equation and ask you how concerned you that these particular five Taliban leaders are on the ground in Qatar.

We heard Senator McCain say earlier he really doesn’t kind of trust that Qatar can do this, even has the ability of monitoring these guys.

Can you tell me — let’s start with General Eaton. What kind of threat do you think they pose?

EATON: Candy, these are not supervillains.

These are five guys that we chose to capture, instead of kill, in order to get information from them. We have kept them a long time, without any due process, because we had them as prisoners. We have exchanged them, which has been going on since the beginning of time, for one of our guys.

So, we’re releasing five joes out there who are not supervillains. They can be captured or killed in the future. So, I’m not sure why we’re so afraid of these guys.

CROWLEY: General Mattis, do you want to chime in on that? Do you think they’re not — they’re not supervillains? I mean, we’re hearing, oh, my gosh, they’re mass murderers and they’re wanted for war crimes at the U.N. et cetera. How do you view the danger of their release to Qatar?

MATTIS: Well Candy, when you get into these situations, you always have to take the least bad of the bad options. It’s not like if this was simple we would have had some simple solution and everybody would have cheered it. The moral and the foreign policy implications are difficult to balance. And it’s going to take time some time to determine if the very heavy price, the very high price that we paid to get Bowe released was in the long term the right thing to do.

But at the same time we are quite capable of taking the fight back at these guys. And a point I would make here is when General McChrystal or General Petraeus, General Allen, now general Dunford, our field commanders went after the Haqqanis, this is a deadly group, every time we did so, we were concerned that Bowe Bergdahl could end up dead. That they would put out a DVD showing that they were killing him. And we lived with that.

I supported the field commanders every time. But we no longer have that concern that they have this pawn that they can then play against us. So there’s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in their (ph) — in captivity. So, there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy so long as they held Bowe as a prisoner.

CROWLEY: General Boykin, I already know that you think these men do pose a threat. When you take on the other question about this, which is do you think that U.S. military now are more at risk for being kidnapped or taken hostage, or taken prisoner however you want to phrase it, because it is clear that the U.S. will make deals obviously to get back their folks?

BOYKIN: No, Candy. There’s been a lot of discussion about that. And I really don’t see that. I think these military people have been at risk ever since they got into Afghanistan. I think they have taken, you know, the right measures. I think the people that are more at risk are the Afghans. I think that there are actually maybe some NGOs, but also the Afghans themselves with these people coming back in.

You need to look at the intel reports on these guys, they are bad actors. I mean these are really bad actors. They were the senior commanders in the Taliban that had been captured and taken to Guantanamo. So, these are bad actors and the Qataris can’t do anything to hold these guys in Qatar. They’ve even said they’re not going to monitor them. They’ll be back on the battlefield and they’re dangerous people.

CROWLEY: General Mattis, you wanted in on that I think?

MATTIS: The point I would make, Candy, number one, Qatar is going to monitor them. They have some of their own — their own prestige at stake here if they want to continue to play a role like this. Number two, we are quite capable of ensuring these guys don’t collect their 401(k)s if they want to go back into the fight. Number three, the Taliban are enemies that have always tried to capture in the last 12 years of war an American serviceman that we intercepted their communications. We know they wanted to do this.

It’s not like all of a sudden they have a new — a new impulse here. Now, they may think that they have more advantage if they capture one of our troops, but remember, these guys were captured in the first place. If they were real men, they would have gone down fighting. So, they’re not that tough of guys. And we are quite capable, the ferocity and the skill of our troops when we close in on an enemy, these guys will not be that difficult to take out.

CROWLEY: General Eaton, in the minute I have left, I wonder if you would speak to the issue of these Guantanamo Bay prisoners if combat troops are pulled out at the end of this year, if the U.S. is gone by 2016, what happens to the untried, uncharged, such as they are, that are still prisoners in Guantanamo Bay?

EATON: Candy, we’ve got to close Guantanamo Bay prison. I think it’s counterproductive for U.S. foreign policy right now. All of those prisoners need to be either tried, and if convicted imprisoned in U.S. prisons or released. When combat operations cease in Afghanistan, when U.S. combat forces are withdrawn, it’s over. And we’ve got to release those prisoners.

CROWLEY: Major General Paul Eaton. Lieutenant General William Boykin, General James Mattis, first of all, thank you all for your considerable service. I would hate to have to add up the years you gave to your country. And I thank you so much for your expertise this morning.

BOYKIN: Thank you.

EATON: Our pleasure, Candy.

MATTIS: Thank you.


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