As I indicated over the weekend, there is much more to the Bowe Bergdahl story than initially meets the eye. The president's Rose Garden speech cast the developments in the best possible light -- a celebration of the fact that after roughly five years in enemy hands, a young American solider is finally returning home to his family. That is good news, yet serious questions are swirling about the propriety and implications of the administration's swap. Critics of the deal charge that it is tantamount to an unprecedented negotiation with terrorists, that it sets free five highly dangerous jihadists, that it was carried out illegally under the NDAA, and that it will embolden our enemies to kidnap additional Americans in hopes of winning concessions -- a tactic very recently extolled by Al Qaeda's top leader. The propaganda value of this trade among radical Islamists is already becoming evident. A separate line of criticism revolves around Bergdahl himself. A number of his fellow soldiers are stepping forward to allege that the returning solider deliberately deserted his unit, a serious claim that's been percolating since his capture in 2009. CNN's Jake Tapper reports today:
According to first-hand accounts from soldiers in his platoon, Bergdahl, while on guard duty, shed his weapons and walked off the observation post with nothing more than a compass, a knife, water, a digital camera, and a diary.At least six soldiers were killed in subsequent searches for Bergdahl, and many soldiers in his platoon said attacks seemed to increase against the United States in Paktika Province in the days and weeks following his disappearance. Many of Bergdahl's fellow troops -- from the seven or so who knew him best in his squad, to the larger group that comprised the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division -- told CNN that they signed nondisclosure agreements agreeing to never share any information about Bergdahl's disappearance and the efforts to recapture him. Some were willing to dismiss that document in hopes that the truth would come out about a soldier who they now fear is being hailed as a hero, while the men who lost their lives looking for him are ignored.
After we redeployed, every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth. And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down...make no mistake: Bergdahl did not "lag behind on a patrol,” as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.
Click through to read the names of American servicemen who were killed by the enemy during their search for Bergdahl. Incidentally, the disclosure that soldiers were required to sign non-disclosure agreements is another weird element of this story:
Former Sr Defense official on #Bergdahl platoon mates being asked to sign NDAs: "Highly unusual."— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) June 2, 2014
The media is also covering questions about the so-called Taliban Five, such as, "whether sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that the released Taliban prisoners do no further harm to the United States." Former presidential speechwriter Marc Thiessen reminds readers that the Bush administration released a former detainee in 2007 who was assessed to be a lower-level a risk to the US than any of the men freed in return for Bergdahl. That man returned to Afghanistan and became one of America's "fiercest" and most violent enemies. Thiessen says that the terms of the current prisoner exchange could allow these men to return to the battlefield next June. How does the administration intend to follow through on its assurances ("sufficient mitigation") that this won't happen? As for Bergdahl, it's important to underscore that the accusations against him have not yet been proven -- but that doesn't mean it was wise for National Security Adviser Susan Rice to fulsomely praise him as having "served the United States with honor and distinction" while ducking questions about the nature of his disappearance. Quite obviously, many of the men who served alongside Bergdahl would strenuously object to that characterization. (As an aside: Was Rice deployed half-cocked on a Sunday chat show...again?) The White House didn't only make the call to pay a high price for Bergdahl's release; they decided to publicly tout it as a success. They must have known -- right? -- that the AWOL/desertion accounts would bubble to the surface sooner or later, given the fact that those whispers had already spilled into some headlines. Josh Rogin wonders if Obama's real play here is to test Congress' will in advance of transferring or releasing even more Gitmo detainees, then shutting the place down -- which has long been the administration's politically-toxic goal. Stay tuned for yet more hearings on yet another Obama administration scandal.
UPDATE - On cue, the Left is already diminishing concerns over this highly questionable episode as "the Right's new Benghazi," while the White House is adopting a "nothing to see here" attitude and scolding reporters for asking obvious questions.