I assume this has been reported before but if, like me, you’re coming to the story only recently, it’s big news. Apparently, the military had — and, maybe, has — hard evidence from the man himself that he went AWOL deliberately.
Which would be worse: If Obama didn’t know about the note before making the swap, or if he did know and went ahead with it anyway?
Sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life. He slipped off the remote military outpost in Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan and took with him a soft backpack, water, knives, a notebook and writing materials, but left behind his body armor and weapons — startling, given the hostile environment around his outpost…
Sergeant Bergdahl slipped away from his outpost, the former senior officer said, possibly on foot but more likely hiding in a contractor’s vehicle. “He didn’t walk out the gate through a checkpoint, and there was no evidence he breached the perimeter wire and left that way,” the ex-officer said…
Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that there was a larger matter at play: The American military does not leave soldiers behind. “When you’re in the Navy, and you go overboard, it doesn’t matter if you were pushed, fell or jumped,” he said. “We’re going to turn the ship around and pick you up.”
Obama made the same point as Kirby at his presser this morning, not because it’s true but because it’s a superb way of defending a terrible prisoner swap. There are vets in Bergdahl’s squad angrily accusing the guy of desertion and, more damningly, the parents of fallen soldiers blaming Bergdahl for their sons’ deaths. When you’ve got people as sympathetic as that hammering you in the media, the only smart play is “I’ll do anything to recover a missing soldier, period.” Message: I care. But as I say, it’s not true: The White House would have had no problem leaving Bergdahl behind if the Taliban’s ask was Khaled Sheikh Mohammed instead of the five lower-profile savages we handed back to them. It’s also not true that it’s irrelevant whether a soldier “pushed, fell or jumped,” in Kirby’s words. This Washington Times piece (linked by Ed in an earlier post but worth promoting again) describes how Special Ops scaled back efforts to find Bergdahl — even when they had solid intelligence on where he was being held — because they were, understandably, unwilling to sacrifice any more of America’s finest in the name of bringing this guy back. Does anyone on either side of this debate fault them for that? Of course the reason a soldier went missing matters.
The fact that hard evidence exists that Bergdahl walked away also helps explain why O had to ram this deal through quickly. Eli Lake:
[C]urrent U.S. intelligence and defense officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on Monday say the process for exchanging Taliban for Bergdahl this time was rushed and closely held, in some instances leaving little room for any push back against a policy clearly favored by the White House.
“This was an example of forcing the consensus,” one U.S. military official said. “The White House knew the answer they wanted and they ended up getting it.”
[T]he process for getting there was rushed, according to U.S. intelligence officials. This time around there was no formal intelligence assessment of, for example, the risks posed by releasing the Taliban commanders. While some intelligence analysts looked at the issue, no community-wide intelligence assessment was produced, according to these officials.
Makes sense. The White House knew this was a bad deal and didn’t want to give opponents, whether in Congress or in the IC, any time to rally opposition in the media. But that brings us back to the key question: Knowing that the deal was bad, knowing that Bergdahl had left a de facto confession to desertion in his tent before he went AWOL, why would they go ahead with it? This isn’t going to help O build political momentum to empty out Gitmo, assuming that’s the secret motive behind all of this. On the contrary.
Exit question: Given that some sort of swap involving Bergdahl and the Taliban Five has been kicking around since 2012 at least, is it really true that Congress was never “notified” about this deal? A Twitter buddy sent me the link to this NYT piece from two years ago noting that Bergdahl’s parents had spilled the beans about a potential exchange. Quote: “Until now, the administration has said publicly only that the negotiations included talks about releasing the five prisoners from Guantánamo to the custody of the government in Qatar — which some Democrats and Republicans in Congress have opposed — and not that the five might be exchanged for Sergeant Bergdahl.” Clearly some Dems and GOPers knew that the five Taliban might be released; Mike Rogers also said this morning that the White House had mentioned the possibility of a prisoner swap for Bergdahl to intel committee members in Congress back in 2011, which the members had resisted, but had said nothing since. All of which is to say that members have had some idea that a deal like this was on the table for several years now, and since there’s nothing they can do under the statute to actually block a deal from going forward, arguably that’s good enough to comply with the law. (Obama himself said this morning that he’s been consulting with Congress about Bergdahl and the Taliban “for quite some time.”) Or is it not good enough because, assuming Rogers’s timeline is correct, the current Congress has never been briefed on this? It was the 112th Congress that was in session in 2011; the current one, the 113th, may have been completely in the dark.
Update: According to Fox News, Bergdahl’s note implied more than just desertion. Stay tuned.
Great reporting from @JenGriffinFNC – new report: Berghdal left behind a note renouncing American citizenship…developing…
— Jenna Lee (@Jennafnc) June 3, 2014