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General William Boykin: Words of Faith

October 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: As the new deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, lieutenant general William Boykin is in charge of tracking down top terror targets like Osama bin laden and Saddam Hussein. But Boykin, an evangelical Christian, says neither man is America’s true enemy. He spoke this past June to a church in Oregon. This video was broadcast on NBC nightly news last week.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM BOYKIN: The enemy is a spiritual enemy. He’s called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan.

MARGARET WARNER: As for international terrorists:

LT. GEN. WILLIAM BOYKIN: They’re after us because we’re a Christian nation.

MARGARET WARNER: In another church speech, delivered while wearing his army uniform, Boykin said this about a Muslim warlord in Somalia:

LT. GEN. WILLIAM BOYKIN: You know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.

MARGARET WARNER: Boykin has also said President Bush “is in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.” Arab American advocates reacted strongly to the comments, first reported last week by NBC and the “Los Angeles Times.” James Zogby heads the Arab-American Institute.

JAMES ZOGBY, President, Arab-American Institute: I think they need to remove the general. He is unfit for the position he is being called upon to serve, precisely because he’s become a liability. He’s become a weapon our enemies will use against us.

MARGARET WARNER: Two Senate Democrats running for president, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry, blasted Boykin’s comments at a meeting of Zogby’s Arab-American group in Detroit.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Our cause in the war on terror isn’t helped when we have army officers like Lieutenant General William Boykin speaking in evangelical churches and claiming this as some sort of battle for the Christian religion. That’s wrong. That’s un-American.

MARGARET WARNER: When the story first broke, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he hadn’t seen the context of the remarks.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There are a lot of things that are said by people in the military, or civilian life, or in the Congress, or in the Executive Branch, that are their views. And that’s the way we live. We’re a free people. And that’s the wonderful thing about our country.

MARGARET WARNER: But the next day, the Pentagon issued an apology from Boykin. “for those who were offended by my statements,” it said, “I offer a sincere apology.” Boykin also wrote: “I am neither a zealot nor an extremist – only a soldier who has an abiding faith….I am not anti-Islam or any other religion.”

Still, Boykin defended some of his past words, saying, “My references to Judeo-Christian roots in America or to our nation as a Christian nation are historically undeniable.” On ABC News Sunday, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was asked if President Bush would condemn Boykin’s words.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think the president is very clear here on what he means here. This is not a war between religions. No one should describe it as such.

MARGARET WARNER: Rumsfeld was asked about the controversy again today.

REPORTER: How can you keep a man in a senior position on you staff whose views are so diametrically opposed to those of the president and to yours?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Let me make several, hopefully precisely put sentences on this subject. First of all, I appreciate your question, because it correctly indicated that the president’s views and my views… the president’s views are that this is not a war against a religion. General Boykin has requested that an inspector general review this matter. And I have indicated that if that’s his request, I think it’s appropriate.

MARGARET WARNER: Later, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner and top committee Democrat Carl Levin disclosed they had written Rumsfeld last Friday night, urging him to launch an inspector general probe. “Remarks by a senior military officer denigrating another religion could be exploited by America’s enemies,” they wrote, “and even endanger U.S. troops serving in Muslim nations.”

This evening, Senator Warner went to the Senate floor and recommended that the Pentagon, without prejudice, temporarily remove General Boykin from his job and detail him elsewhere until the IG investigation is complete. To explore this controversy, we turn to Richard Kohn, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. The former chief historian for the U.S. Air Force, he has written extensively on civil- military relations. And retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis.

His final assignment was as an investigator in the army’s inspector general office. He then served as national security director at the Family Research Council. He’s now a consultant, and a contributor to Fox Television. Welcome to you both. Professor Kohn, what do you make of this controversy?

RICHARD KOHN: Well, it’s a very disturbing controversy, Margaret. It’s a potential disaster for American foreign policy particularly the war on terrorism. It’s very disturbing that a man of these… not of his views– the views are not as important as of his judgment in expressing them publicly in uniform, although that’s not the issue either– that are opposed to those of the United States repeatedly in semi-public forums should rise to general officer rank and would be appointed to a position like this.

I’m also disturbed that in general uniformed officers are serving in high positions with the title secretary in them. That’s not really civilian control. And that Secretary Rumsfeld should be so testy and evasive at his press conferences about this incident doesn’t speak to me that he, the secretary who has asserted civilian control most vigorously, more than anyone in the last 35 years, would just kind of evade this issue and try to put it off is also disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Kohn’s laid a number of issues have been laid on the table. How do you see it, Col. Maginnis?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: We live in a politically correct world. The reality is that we say today Margaret will be heard around the world. They’ll kind of test those words. Osama bin Laden is sending tapes our way, you know, Saddam Hussein is sending tapes our way trying to influence the masses. So even though, you know, if you could say that what the general said was completely correct that, you know, whatever, it’s politically incorrect.

Obviously it can be manipulated by our enemies to our own, you know, chagrin quite frankly. I just came back from Iraq. I think we’re doing a great job with working with the iraqi people and with the Muslims and the Shia and so forth. I would hate to see, you know, some statements made a couple years ago by an officer at the time that was in a clandestine sort of situation.

Now, quite frankly some of what he said i think was taken out of context by the LA Times and others. However, things get out of control and i tend to agree with what Senator Warner said tonight. Maybe it’s time to kind of have a cooling off. Let’s look at what was really said. Let’s re-evaluate it because what we don’t want is to have some of our young soldiers killed because some Jihadist got the idea that we’re just ratcheting up this war against them. That would be unfortunate.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Kohn, help us understand here how much latitude officers do have to express their religious or political views. Senators Warner and Levin in their letter said that in general there had been, you know, the armed forces tries to give a lot of latitude but that there are limits. Was what… if what he said is what’s reported he said, one, was it wrong of him or unprofessional or was it simply… or was it a matter of, say, political correctness as Colonel Maginnis has also suggested?

RICHARD KOHN: No, it’s not a matter of political correctness, Margaret. The issue is the content and how it relates to American policy. This officer gave at least a dozen of these speeches, virtually once a month in different churches over the last year including one in July and one in September after he had been appointed to this job a very sensitive job in the war on terror. So while officers have a good deal of latitude in private, of course, to express their views, in private to people, in private even when they’re in contravention of American policy they have to be very careful and very circumspect.

I think in this case when this officer used bad judgment to pronounce on the nature of our war, the nature of our enemy, the nature of what’s motivating us and provides really an enormous propaganda coups to the other side, he’s really made himself useless to the Pentagon and it seems to me that unless he is really swiftly removed, this disaster will be exploited more and more by our enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go on to what should happen to Colonel Boykin and you both seem to be in agreement on that. Help us understand, Col. Maginnis, your sense as a former uniformed officer of how much freedom, latitude you had and in what venues to express your views particularly… I mean, he’s expressing religious views but also about a war he’s in the middle of waging. Where’s the line here? Where is it?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Well, the sensitivity he should have with regard to what’s going on around him, he’s an intelligence officer as well as a special ops having worked a long time in that part of the world so he knows how incendiary words can be in that particular culture. He reads it every day. I hold him at fault for not demonstrating that.

There is a problem though, Margaret, when he goes out in uniform. You know, I served a long time in the military. I can recall back right before i retired, i did some national television. And I was told very clearly you don’t show up in uniform. You say up front these are my thoughts. And they do not represent those of the United States government. So i hold him at fault for showing up in his uniform with his polished boots as they said in the LA Times and then stating his beliefs.

Now, Thomas Jefferson though if you go over to the memorial here it says clearly you should be able to express your religious opinion in this country but there is a difference between being in uniform and being a civilian and being in elected office. I would disagree with the professor. Politics does matter. The general should have known. He was going up the ranks fairly rapidly. If you live in a glass house, people throw rocks. And especially if you live in a glass house where there’s a war going on, you better be very sensitive to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, is part of the issue that he did this in uniform and let me ask you a double-barreled question: There are some Republican members of congress who have written or are circulating a letter suggesting to Secretary Rumsfeld that he not do anything that would seem to interfere with General Boykin’s free expression of his religious beliefs. That’s not an exact quote but that’s the gist.

RICHARD KOHN: Well, i think the general has the right to freely express his religious beliefs in private, and he can do it in public when he’s not attaching those religious beliefs to the nature of the war and then transferring them to the war. I think the issue of uniform is really a less significant issue. Because he is a high official of the Department of Defense in a particularly important job means that he has to be very careful.

He can express his religious views in the appropriate forum if they are his private religious views and they are detached from the policies of the United States Government and are not, not his views but those views of policy and of the war in contradiction to national policy and what the president, the secretary of defense, and most other high officials are saying.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Colonel, let me go back to an issue that the professor raised earlier which was Secretary Rumsfeld’s reaction to how he’s handled this. Do you think he’s been testy and defensive? Do you think he should have… he pointedly refused to criticize the remarks or applaud them either. How do you think he’s handled this?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: He’s been fairly evasive i think. He didn’t win a deal with the particulars. He said in today’s press conference, i listened to the tape but i couldn’t really make it out. He escapes to a certain degree, Margaret, you know, accountability. But I think this buys him time to kind of see what obviously what Senator Warner says and what others are beginning to see. And I think it’s an appropriate outcome here that, you know, the general has asked for an Inspector General investigation to look at the details here, to verify what was said on the tape, how it was perhaps misconstrued from his point of view.

He does go through in his statement of last Friday night outlining what he really intended. And so quite frankly the audience ha he was speaking to might have understood it in one context but it was interpreted completely differently.

RICHARD KOHN: Margaret?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

RICHARD KOHN: It seems to me that we have to keep in mind just how potentially damaging this can be to the war on terror because in many foreign countries particularly unrepresentative countries, conspiracy theories abound. People consider in those kinds of societies that the public statements of leaders are just blather, just propaganda. And when a second or third or fourth level official lets slip something like this, it can be taken out of context. It can be blown up.

It can be represented by our enemies as the true motivation of the United States particularly in those societies in the Middle East and elsewhere that are so susceptible to these conspiracy theories. You see that in the rise in anti-Semitism in some societies again attached to conspiracy theories which is an old basis for anti-Semitism. So I think it’s really quite dangerous here. This is just not political correctness. This is a possible major problem for the United States that has to be dealt with quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Col. Maginnis, let me go back now to how Secretary Rumsfeld should handle this next because even though he said today that Boykin had asked for the I.G., We then learned from Senator Warner that they had written and suggested it to Rumsfeld; however, Rumsfeld did not say today Boykin would be remove. Warner goes to the floor and makes the suggestion. Should Secretary Rumsfeld… does he have a choice now is he going to have to temporarily remove Boykin from this job?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: You heard Condoleezza Rice yesterday or Sunday and what she spoke about. I think that she was speaking for the president — that it is inconsistent to have someone saying something that is interpreted differently than what the party line. The party line is this is not a war against Islam. Apparently these words, whether he intended them or not, are being misused.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, briefly, do you agree that Secretary Rumsfeld should take the next step and temporarily transfer Boykin out of this job?

RICHARD KOHN: I think it’s an interim step but I think that this whole issue has to come to closure very quickly if it’s to minimize the damage that’s been done.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Richard Kohn and Lieutenant Colonel Maginnis, thank you both.