President Barack Obama has done it again. His handling of the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl case has not only offended much of the American populace, it has infuriated large numbers of Democrats.
There are two major issues involved in the swap of five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl. The first is legal, the second is political.
First, the legal problem. Congress passed and Obama signed a bill requiring the president to inform Congress 30 days in advance of releasing any prisoner from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president has long objected to Gitmo, and lawmakers worried that in his drive to close it, he would start releasing prisoners who would rejoin the fight against the United States and the fragile Afghan government.
For the past five years, there has been a discussion at the top levels of the U.S. government about trading five senior members of the Taliban for Sgt. Bergdahl. Despite the White House’s best efforts, there was intense opposition to a deal. Not only did the military object, but both Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and CIA director, and James Clapper, then-director of National Intel-ligence, also opposed it.
The White House manufactured a story about Bergdahl being deathly sick and said he could die if he were not freed soon. Bergdahl could have some hidden illness, but he is not the emaciated, incoherent soldier the White House depicted. But the story did justify what the president was determined to do.
From a political standpoint, what the president did was set a precedent. Under both Demo-cratic and Republican presidents, the United States has had a firm policy: we did not negotiate with terrorists. Now, suddenly, GIs and and Americans are in greater danger. Our intelligence officials tell us there is a 30 percent recidivism probability. These five Taliban prisoners were not standard fighters. They were among Mullah Omar’s top intelligence and military officials.
If that were not enough, the more we learn about Bergdahl, the less sympathetic he appears. While he must be considered innocent until proven guilty, he was far from the heroic soldier that NSC advisor Susan Rice claimed him to be on national TV. A number of former soldiers who were in his platoon have come forward to talk about events surrounding his capture.
First, it seems clear that he defected. He walked away from his unit, and according to one report, left letters denouncing his country and the U.S. Army. At a minimum, that is desertion. There also are reports that six to eight U.S. soldiers were killed looking for him. There is also a report that the Army knew where Bergdahl was, but given his behavior, chose not to risk the lives of special operation troops to rescue someone who amounted to a traitor. Yet another report says Bergdahl became a Muslim , which is his right, of course. More disconcerting is the report that he became a warrior ready to embrace jihad.
The emerging picture of Bergdahl has put the White House in an uncomfortable position. To trade what one person called “kingpins of terror” for an individual of questionable credentials raises questions about the competency of the president and his advisors. As one reporter put it, “They are crawfishing,” moving backwards trying to find a story that will stick. Once stories about Berg-dahl’s health and heroic status were busted, the administration turned to attacking those who denounced him for desertion and possible cooperation with the Taliban. A State Department spokesperson attacked Berg-dahl’s platoon comrades as untrustworthy.
We will learn more about Bergdahl as time goes on. The Army has his writings and a whole file on him — unfortunately classified. Gen. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that Bergdahl will be subject to an investigation and that if there are grounds for it, he will face military justice.
The real question is whether the White House will permit a trial, if it comes to that. I suspect that Bergdahl will be booted out of the Army with no prison time, taking the five years he spent in captivity into account.
Already there are signs that the American public is souring on Bergdahl. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled plans for a welcome-home celebration. The town of 8,000 said it did not think it could handle the crowds supportive of and objecting to Bergdahl that the celebration would attract.
It’s Obama’s move. He said some time ago that he was tired of trying to work with Congress and instead would like to issue degrees, as former Russian President Boris Yeltsin did. That is his right. I doubt that the talk of impeachment will lead anywhere, but if Obama is concerned about his legacy, he might want to change his ap-proach. He may be working himself into a reputation resembling that of Richard Nixon.