It's not often that the recovery of a captured American soldier turns into a political embarrassment for the White House. But the Obama administration has so needlessly bungled the case of Bowe Bergdahl that not a single aspect of his release from captivity remains untouched by controversy.
Bergdahl's story has raised eyebrows for years. Captured in July 2009, the then private first class became a singular example of an American prisoner of war in a war in which our enemies had routinely tortured and killed captured troops. The circumstances of his disappearance had long been an uncomfortable question mark, and The Washington Post reported on Monday that a 2010 investigation concluded that he had "walked away," in what amounted to a de facto desertion.
After a sweeping search-and-rescue operation that led to the deaths of at least six soldiers, the Pentagon took the unusual step of requiring soldiers from Bergdahl's unit to sign nondisclosure agreements about his disappearance, his capture, and the consequences that followed. But the story got out anyway; in 2012, the late Michael Hastings reported in detail about Bergdahl's disappearance for Rolling Stone, and raised the core question: Would his alleged desertion put the Pentagon in the position of leaving a man behind as the Obama administration worked to wind down the Afghanistan War?
That was, and is, undoubtedly a tough question. What price would America pay to regain its only POW? For some, no price would be too high regardless of the circumstances of the POW's capture. For others, the possibility of desertion — and the lives it cost — make any significant price unthinkable.
Andrew Sullivan accurately referred to this as "an excruciating choice," and "depressing" in light of the five high-ranking and dangerous Taliban figures released to get Bergdahl back. Most Americans probably fall somewhere in the middle, and would have had sympathy for those who had to make the call — had they approached the issue honestly.
Instead, the White House has continued its track record for disingenuous behavior and flat-out false rationales. It started with the announcement of the release itself, made from the Rose Garden by President Obama on Saturday with Bergdahl's parents in attendance. Obama declared that we have "an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home" that defines "who we are as Americans."
What else defines who we are as Americans? The rule of law, and in this case the White House seems to have forgotten that commitment. Congress passed a statute as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed by Obama, that requires the president to provide 30 days' notice to appropriate congressional leadership of any transfers of detainees from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Even by Monday, the White House had not bothered to notify the chair of the House Armed Services Committee of the release of the five Taliban figures and the security arrangements to keep them from rejoining the fight in Afghanistan, despite a pledge made last year that Congress would be consulted on any release. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argued that "exigent circumstances" prevented the White House from notifying Congress — but those same circumstances somehow didn't keep Obama from getting the Bergdahls into the Rose Garden from Idaho.
The White House's nonchalance about the five Taliban detainees also had people scratching their heads. Press secretary Jay Carney tried arguing that they presented no threat to the U.S., but two of them have been charged with mass murder by the United Nations, and the Taliban celebrated their release as a "big victory" over the U.S. One detainee, Khairullah Khairkwa, was a confidant of Osama bin Laden, while Abdul Haq Wasiq served as deputy intelligence minister to the Taliban.
Despite this, Carney argued that the Obama administration had determined that they posed no risk. Carney also refused to discuss any of the "mitigation" terms that would keep the men from leaving Qatar during their one-year exile, creating even more questions about the deal.
The biggest deception, however, came when the administration attempted to justify the Bergdahl deal on the basis of his service. In 2012, talking with Rolling Stone's Hastings, the White House had been both blunter and smarter about the issue. "Frankly, we don't give a shit why he left," one official told Hastings. "He's an American soldier. We want to bring him home."
That explanation would probably suffice for most Americans. Unfortunately, the White House tried to rewrite history. Susan Rice, who infamously fronted the false narrative on the Benghazi attack, appeared on ABC's This Week and arguably did it again. When George Stephanopoulos pressed her on the lopsided trade in the context of his apparent desertion, Rice instead insisted that Berghdahl had "served the United States with honor and distinction."
That came as news to the men who served with Bergdahl and had attempted to find him after he walked away from the base. Multiple members of his unit went public after the announcement, despite the nondisclosure agreements, to denounce Bergdahl as a deserter. One set of parents who had been told that their son died while attempting to capture a high-ranking Taliban commander instead discovered that he had been killed trying to find Bergdahl.
Even worse, James Rosen at Fox News reported that Bergdahl's disappearance became the subject of an investigation by U.S. intelligence, which produced a "major classified file" on the question of desertion — or perhaps even collaboration.
Had Obama and the White House followed protocol, engaged Congress on the swap, and stuck with the core principle of bringing back captured Americans no matter how they ended up in enemy hands, they would have avoided much of the controversy. Instead, they once again exhibited arrogance toward Congress and tried finessing the narrative in a way that could not possibly stand up to scrutiny. The administration ended up with egg on its face, looking both incompetent and dishonest rather than torn on a legitimately tough call.