An article recently published by the Intercept is attacking Rep. Ryan Zinke’s character, thereby questioning his ability to serve as the Secretary of the Interior for President-elect Trump. The article titled, “Trump’s Pick for Interior Secretary was caught in ‘Pattern of Fraud’ at SEAL Team 6” uses unnamed sources to accuse Rep. Zinke of intentionally and repeatedly flying back to Montana on the government’s dime with the sole purpose of renovating the home he intended to move into once he left the Navy.
In 1999, when Zinke was a young SEAL Team Six operations officer, he was in charge of scheduling the training for the team. He chose mountain warfare and winter warfare training in remote sites like Montana, because it is an austere mountainous environment such as Afghanistan and the Balkans. The added benefit of training in Montana for Zinke was the close proximity to his future home. Yes, he combined personal travel with official travel. Yes, this was not the best choice to make in this situation. Zinke’s actions were investigated and he paid the price at the time. He received a verbal warning from his leadership and paid back $211 to the government.
Not only did the incident get investigated, but afterwards Zinke was promoted and was one of the highest ranked officers for his unit. For those that have not served in the military, this is the key part of the story. If an officer does something seriously wrong, not only will it show up in their annual evaluation but they will be ranked the lowest of the low among their peers.
A good rule of thumb for officer evaluations, is striving to be in the top percentage of the officers that are being rated (your peers) in your unit. If you are ranked in the middle of the curve consistently year after year, you are okay but nothing spectacular (checking the box, doing the minimum required). If you are ranked on the low end of the curve, you are a sub-standard performer that needs to get out of the military. This was not the case with Zinke. SOFREP has obtained every FITREP or Fitness report (annual officer evaluation) for Zinke and every one of his raters recommended him for promotion and more responsibility. If the investigation lead to more serious findings, it would have been reflected in his FITREPs, he would not have been promoted, and he would have faded into the background.
Here are the raters’ comments from Zinke’s FITREPs beginning in 1998 and ending in 1999:
The article also accuses Zinke of glossing over the incident in his book, “American Commander.” Not only does he address the issue but he owns up to his lapse in judgement. Here is the excerpt from his book that discusses it:
I did have a glitch in my record. Call it bad judgment or a bad habit; it was one in the same. My first tour was characterized as the Pirate era. Members traveled and trained where they liked and navy oversight was little or none. While the open throttle years of Dick Marcinko had passed, the legacy was still there. The team was in the early stages of a transition from pony tails and earrings to getting haircuts and return-ing to uniforms. I transferred about the same time that Eric Olson came in and changed the culture. When I came back to senior leadership in my team, the command had changed, but I had not. As team leader, I was in charge of determining the training schedule based on meeting critical skill requirements. I took every opportunity to go out west to find training sites and look for opportunities for my team. As areas of Montana are nearly indistinguishable from the forests of Bosnia or the hills of Afghanistan, it made sense. Selecting training sites was a privilege that had been afforded to every team leader before me.
I had bought my grandparents’ house and decided to restore it rather than sell the family seat of generations. It seemed like a perfect match to travel to Fort Harrison, Spokane, Glasgow, and other training areas and go on leave. We conducted weapons and explosive training in Yakima, Washington, and conducted fire and movement in the hills of Montana. Why not? I was in charge and that was standard operating procedure. The problem was autonomous travel was no longer authorized and the rules had changed. Every travel claim for the past seven years was reviewed and every training trip was scrutinized. I felt like Captain Drake being tried for piracy in England after he fought for the Crown. It wasn’t pretty but I did not get hung. I ended up having to repay $211 in unauthorized expenses, but the biggest penalty was being embarrassed for wrongdoing. Lesson learned, all of us are accountable to someone. Even the President and Congress are accountable to the people. It was a hard lesson to learn and likely put a cloud over me making flag officer. When I transferred, I was still given the highest recommendation for early promotion, assigned as executive officer, promoted to full commander, and later assigned multiple tours as the Naval Special Operations Forces Commander in Kosovo, and later acting Commander of Special Operations Forces in Iraq. The incident was a “shot across the bow” for sure, and I have to say I got the message.”
Bottom-line, the significance of this incident is extremely small, possibly equivalent to someone having an old speeding ticket on their record. He made a mistake and had a lapse in judgement when he was an operations officer. He owned up to his mistake and moved on to have a great and successful career as a Navy SEAL officer. Zinke is still well-respected in the SEAL community. He was recently re-elected to serve as a Montana Congresssman. Now a new chapter in his life is about to begin as the Secretary of the Interior for President-elect Trump.
Being a SEAL and a politician both have their unique seen and unseen dangers. The higher Zinke rises in the political system, the more people will try to grasp at any flaw they can find whether or not it has merit.
Brandon Webb, former Navy SEAL turned media CEO, has experienced these dangers first hand. Brandon served under Ryan Zinke at the Naval Special Warfare Advanced Training center.
This is an example of two things I’ve seen and personally experienced. Professional jealously and a media outlet dipping their toes in the realm of news entertainment rather than focusing on real journalism. An unfortunate trend these days.” -Brandon Webb, founder Hurricane Group, and former Navy SEAL
Featured image courtesy of Flathead Beacon