Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: “This is a happy day. We got one of our own back.” It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
Poll the troops who were there. I’ll bet they don’t think it was so “unclear.” As for Todd’s point about the White House expecting “euphoria,” there are only two possibilities. One: Despite a Pentagon investigation in 2010 into Bergdahl’s disappearance, despite Michael Hastings’s article two years ago in Rolling Stone, despite the fact that Bergdahl apparently left a note confirming his desertion, somehow everyone in the administration who had input into this prisoner swap missed the longstanding accusations against him. They thought they were bringing home a guy who was captured heroically in combat and have now been caught completely by surprise. I don’t buy that, although I’ve had a few dozen conservative pals warn me on Twitter over the past 24 hours to never underestimate Hopenchange’s ignorance and incompetence. Point taken, and if this were purely a policy matter, I might go along. It isn’t. It’s a political landmine too and O’s usually careful to protect his own political capital. Someone surely looked into Bergdahl’s disappearance and signed off on this knowing the allegations against him.
Which brings us to the other possibility. Namely, Obama expected “euphoria” over Bergdahl’s release not because he didn’t know about the desertion claims but because he assumed that most of the public would never find out. I think he expected the media to go face-first into the tank in ignoring the desertion angle in the interest of (a) protecting the White House and (b) playing up the gauzy “POW reunited with parents” human-interest stuff. And you know what? That was a reasonable expectation. They probably thought that any desertion claims against Bergdahl would be confined to Fox and a few problematic segments on Jake Tapper’s show, all of which could be ignored and ghettoized as some new right-wing bugaboo (sorry, Jake) that no one else need take seriously. Michael Tomasky was way out in front of that yesterday morning. But then all sorts of big-media outlets dug in — the Times, WaPo, NBC, ABC, and on and on — and that made the “politicization” defense too difficult (although the left, God love ’em, is still trying). I’m shocked by how eagerly the media went after it, frankly, although not as shocked as the White House. The X factor they didn’t anticipate, I’ll bet, is that soldiers like Cody Full would come forward and risk retaliation for putting his name to the “deserter” theory. It’s one thing to call a Republican a hack, it’s another to call a veteran who was there and who lost friends in the hunt for Bergdahl one. They’ve been left with no counter.
All of which is to say, this seems to boil down to a fundamental misunderstanding by the White House of military culture. If soldiers had reacted the way O expected, celebrating the release of a POW, it really would have tamped down the criticism of Bergdahl. For obvious reasons: If the men who risk their lives defending America are willing to forgive him and welcome his return, who are the rest of us to question him? But that’s not how the men who served with him reacted; in fact, unless I missed it, not a single member of Bergdahl’s unit has spoken up in his defense. Obama gambled heavily that both veterans and the media would keep quiet. He lost.
Update: You feeling euphoric yet?
But officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities had successfully fought off release of the five men in the past, officials tell Time. “This was out of the norm,” says one official familiar with the debate over the dangers of releasing the five Taliban officials. “There was never the conversation.” Obama’s move was an ultimate victory for those at the White House and the State Department who had previously argued the military should “suck it up and salute,” says the official familiar with the debate…
Those opposing release had the benefit of secret and top secret intelligence showing that the five men were a continuing threat, officials familiar with the debate tell TIME. But in the push from the White House and the State Department to clear the men, opponents to release found themselves under constant pressure to prove that the five were dangerous. “It was a heavy burden to show they were bad,” says the second source familiar with the debate.
Opponents of release say absent a peace deal with the Taliban, the release makes no sense. “When our military is engaged in combat operations you’re always going to err on the side of caution,” says the first official familiar with the debate. “Just conceptually, how much sense does it make to release your enemy when you’re still at war with him?”
Obama’s national security team wanted the transfer to happen so it happened, despite the concerns of the Pentagon and the IC. Closing Gitmo means everything, even if the price is sending these lunatics back into battle.
Which makes me wonder: The media’s assuming that the White House wanted an American POW back so badly that they’d reluctantly agree to release five very dangerous Taliban to make it happen. In reality, maybe the reasoning went the other way. Maybe, in the name of finally closing Gitmo, they were eager to get rid of the five Taliban but realized that they couldn’t free them without paying a heavy political price. If, however, they could get the last American prisoner in Afghanistan back as part of a trade, that might give them enough cover to make it happen. It wasn’t Bergdahl who drove the deal, in other words, it was springing these guys from Gitmo. Bergdahl was just a bit of political sugar for the White House that’s now suddenly turned sour on them.