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Montana state senator and former SEAL Team Six Commander Ryan Zinke on politicians taking credit for military gains

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HH: I am joined now from Montana by State Senator Ryan Zinke, who joins us. He has a long career in the United States Navy SEAL team. He was in fact commander of a SEAL Team Six. Senator Zinke, welcome, it’s great to have you.

RZ: It’s great to be here, and for the record, I was a commander at SEAL Team Six. I was not the commander.

HH: All right, thank you. You know, I always get that stuff wrong, and I’ve got a couple of pals on the teams down in San Diego, and they try and work with me on that, but it’s never going to take. I’m a civilian’s civilian. Tell me, Senator, you represent Whitefish. Does that mean you have any of the Madison?

RZ: (laughing) Well, I represent Whitefish and Glacier Park, and you know, Montana is a great state. We meet once every two years for 90 days. Little government is good government. It’s probably the way it should be.

HH: Well, I like that. It’s just they won’t let me back in the state. I fished out the Madison two summers ago, and the folks at the Bear Tooth Lodge said I can’t come back, I’m too effective of a fisherman. So I’m thinking maybe you can intervene for me.

RZ: Well, try your luck up north on the Flathead, one of the three forks, and I’d love to go fish with you and put a fly in the water.

HH: All right, well tell us a little bit, Senator, about your reaction quoted in the Mail today by Toby Harnden to the President’s recent statements about the bin Laden raid.

RZ: Well, I think there’s really two issues. The first issue is should have SEAL Team Six, should that name and the unit been identified? And the answer is no. I think the more appropriate was to say U.S. Special Forces. But I don’t think you should ever attribute a specific action to a specific team, because you incur additional risk on active duty team members and their families. So I think like many of us, I was uncomfortable when the administration disclosed it was SEAL Team Six. And then afterwards, when it’s out there, then as a taxpayer, you know, as someone who has constituents, you know, they do, at that point in time, America has, I think, a right to know that there’s a team like this out there. They need to know they’re well-funded. They need to, we need to be transparent, but that transparency probably should stop at specific actions. It’s enough to know that they’re out there, and it’s enough to know that you should sleep better at night knowing that men and women are out there doing their job.

HH: Now I just had former Attorney General Mukasey on earlier in the hour, and he believes that some people in the intelligence community are infuriated by the way the raid was handled and publicized after it was concluded. Do you concur with that with regards to Special Warfare community?

RZ: I think that’s a fair assessment. But the military, you know, our Constitution, we work for a civilian, the national command authority, and that’s appropriate in the way it should be. And so the military, I think there was a lot of swallowing of this is probably not the right policy, but the military, we’re awful busy. They’re doing things every day that the SEALs are gone about 300 days out of the year. And so they have enough on their plate. But I think there is a risk when you politicize the SEALs or Special Forces, there’s a risk that you’re going to lose the credibility. And that is always my concern. You know, when Admiral Mullen has said the greatest risk to our country is the debt, and I would respectfully disagree. I think the greatest risk to our country is the breach of faith, and no one trusting the government. And about the last institution polls will indicate that of trust is our military, and we have to protect that.

HH: Now 23 years on the teams, obviously that’s a lot of forward deployments. And I know that you’ve got a lot of experience behind whatever you answer to this. But you’re also a politician. You’re an elected official. And I want to make this bipartisan. I do want to make it bipartisan. How do you react when any politician either gives or takes praise for making decisions that involve others taking physical risks?

RZ: Well, first, I can tell you it was a lot easier being a SEAL than it is in politics. And I really am one politician who doesn’t like politics. But there is, yeah, it’s upsetting to me that you would…first of all, on the President, he made the right call. And I commend the administration for making the right call. I commend the President for doing what was right. I personally think it was a no-brainer. I think every president, every candidate in that office would make the right call and do the same. And I commend Jimmy Carter for making the decision on the failed Desert One. He made the right call, too. But there is a line in the sand that kind of goes on, and you can see it coming where the Secretary of Defense being on numerous talk shows, and the build up to it. He is the commander-in-chief, and I respect that. But I think it’s incumbent upon him to hold that obligation to be commander-in-chief, and be very careful to erode the credibility of the office of the president as well as the military. And you know, it’s a sign of the times, but I think there has to be a threshold of integrity that’s maintained.

HH: Now obviously, you stay in touch with the men that you worked with for those many years. Is the feeling general that too many politicians are taking too many bows for that which the uniforms get done?

RZ: Well, you know, there is, and the other thing that’s important to realize is that who’s going to look at the military? I mean, the military, God bless them, you know, they’re pressed. They’ve been in sustained combat for over ten years. They’re worn pretty thin. And this particular operation, I can tell you, every service was involved. Every member did their part. And the SEALs got the headlines, but I can tell you there’s a lot more of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and Marines that are out there doing their job to make it happen, and as well as the intelligence community. So it was a full press from a great team. But you know, we live in a system where politics runs our country. And who’s going to be the advocate for the service member? Who’s going to be the advocate for the E-5 that’s gone all the time, and his family is left at home? And that’s where my, I guess my heart is, is that someone’s got to do it, and I got frustrated with the direction this country was heading, and so I’m involved in a different fight.

HH: Well, good luck in that. Let us know how we can help. Ryan Zinke, state senator of Montana, former member of SEAL Team Six, a commander of it. And thanks so much for spending time with us.

End of interview.

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