A smart take from Josh Rogin that helps explain not only why they did the deal but why they did it the way they did it.
There are now four different dubious angles, by the way, to the Bergdahl prisoner swap. One: Was Bergdahl captured against his will or did he desert? Two: Is his return worth the price of releasing five Taliban capos (actually four Taliban and one Haqqani), two of whom are wanted for war crimes? Three: If Bergdahl did desert, how many American soldiers’ deaths did he indirectly cause by doing so? (Tapper’s much-linked CNN piece this morning says six at least.) And four: Did Obama have the legal authority to make this trade? Rogin’s piece picks up on the last thread:
In his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama promised to shutter the prison built on Cuban soil by the end of the year. Obama now has seven months to fulfill his latest promise to shut down Guantanamo—or come as close to it as he can. During that time, Congress will be unable to prevent the release of the 149 prisoners still there.
“This whole deal may have been a test to see how far the administration can actually push it, and if Congress doesn’t fight back they will feel more empowered to move forward with additional transfers,” said one senior GOP senate aide close to the issue. “They’ve lined up all the dominoes to be able to move a lot more detainees out of Guantanamo and this could be just the beginning.”…
Now there’s growing concern on Capitol Hill that President Obama intends to bypass Congress to fulfill his promise to close the prison by releasing scores of more Guantanamo prisoners with little public or even private debate. Lawmakers and staffers see the Bergdahl case as only the latest maneuver in a larger plan to cut Congress out of the Guantanamo issue; and they’re not exactly reassured by senior administration officials’ refusal to disclose what steps will be taken to mitigate the risk that these prisoners could become involved again in the Afghan insurgency.
Of course, the Bergdahl case is a special one. Partially due to concern over Bergdahl’s fate, Congress actually gave up a significant amount of oversight of Guantanamo releases last December by passing a defense policy bill that eased the burden on the administration before releasing prisoners. Now, it’s just a simple Congressional notification. The law itself contains no enforcement measures and Obama even issued a signing statement at the time saying even the remaining restrictions violated his Constitutional prerogative.
The law says the White House needs to give Congress 30 days’ notice before releasing a prisoner from Gitmo — but since there’s no penalty if President Overreach fails to comply, go figure that he wouldn’t be a stickler about doing so. He learned that lesson years ago when he ignored the War Powers Act to intervene in Libya and Congress, true to form, did nothing about it but grumble. Naturally, if they let him get away with going to war in violation of federal law, he’d conclude that they won’t hassle him about a prisoner swap.
Or will they? BuzzFeed’s got a clip up of House Armed Services committee chairman Buck McKeon telling Fox News that he’s going to hold hearings on the Bergdahl transfer. That’s the point of Rogin’s piece — even if there are no meaningful legal restraints on Obama in emptying out Gitmo at this point, there are still potential political restraints if the GOP is willing to take up the four questions I raised above. (Actually, there’s a fifth question now that I think about it: Shouldn’t Karzai and the Afghans have had some say in this deal? They’re the ones who’ll have to live with the five degenerates we just handed over to Qatar.) If they aren’t, O might conclude that he’s got the green light to start releasing more detainees, albeit probably not until after election day so as to minimize the electoral fallout for Democrats. Much depends on Republicans’ appetite for tackling yet another Obama scandal this summer, when their plate’s already full with Benghazi and the VA and when they’re guaranteed lots of pushback in the form of fake liberal outrage that anyone would object to the return of an American soldier to his homeland and his parents. Obama figures, I think, that there’s no way the GOP’s going to go into table-pounding mode while the Bergdahls are doing teary interviews with Oprah about how they never gave up hope. Is he wrong?
Still, though: Why give up so much for Bergdahl, knowing the pain the White House will suffer if the desertion charges prove true and/or the Taliban Five end up back on the battlefield, blowing up American troops? My first hunch when I heard about the deal was that this was part of a new “feelgood” approach to foreign policy over the rest of Obama’s presidency to distract from the fact that he’s accomplished so little internationally. Hashtag activism, the kidnapped Nigerian girls, securing the return of the last American POW in Afghanistan — none of these are major strategic victories but they show the average voter that the White House’s heart is in the right place even if its head is up its ass. My hunch must be wrong, though, just because there’s too much political peril in the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance and release. You wouldn’t pick this as a slam-dunk “feelgood” gesture with big-time reporters like Tapper wondering if this guy went AWOL. So what’s the White House’s real motive, then? I think it’s all about building goodwill with the Taliban in hopes of restarting peace talks. Obama wants out of Afghanistan but he wants at least some cosmetic promises from the enemy that they’ll respect the new government, let girls go to school, etc, so that withdrawal looks like less of a capitulation. Handing over the Taliban Five might jump-start something. The biggest foreign-policy “achievement” of his second term is the phony nuclear rapprochement with Iran, which he’s touting as a success. Go figure that he might try something similar with the Taliban.
In lieu of an exit question, take some time to read three different accounts from veterans who served (or claim to have served) at the same time as Bergdahl and are skeptical that he was taken against his will. Ed already linked this one by Nathan Bradley Bethea, but if you missed them this weekend, make sure you read the ones from “CodyFNfootball” and “Raven-Wolf” too. Think Oprah will be interviewing them?
Update: Let’s add a sixth question for those House hearings to explore.
Former Sr Defense official on #Bergdahl platoon mates being asked to sign NDAs: "Highly unusual."
— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) June 2, 2014