3 Bogus Claims about the Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange

bergdahlRepublican politicians’ praise for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from his Taliban captors in a prisoner exchange has quickly evaporated only to be replaced by unrelenting criticism of the White House’s role in his release. The conservative media (especially FOX News) has gone into overdrive in denouncing President Obama’s role in securing the release of America’s last prisoner of war in Afghanistan. They have even verbally attacked Bergdahl’s father, who has spent years trying to effect the release of his son.

The media have generally let the critics define the conversation around Sgt. Bergdahl and in doing so have let a number of controversial assertions go unchecked. Three main claims keep reappearing in these conversations.

#1: Obama negotiated with terrorists for Bergdahl’s release

One hears again and again the refrain that “America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.” Fair enough. But exactly who was the negotiating party in this exchange? As Fred Kaplan pointed out earlier this week,

taliban1[T]he Taliban delegates, with whom U.S. officials have been negotiating in Qatar over the fate of Sgt. Bergdahl, are not terrorists. They represent a political faction and a military force in Afghanistan; they are combatants in a war that the United States is fighting. In other words, Bergdahl was not a “hostage” … . He was a prisoner of war, and what happened on May 31 was an exchange of POWs.

It’s an important distinction that easily gets lost in the conversation. Such prisoner exchanges happen all the time; this one was not exceptional. Kaplan continues,

The United States and practically every other nation that’s ever fought a war have made these sorts of exchanges for centuries. In recent years, American officers have turned over hundreds of detainees to the Afghan government, which in turn freed them in exchange for favors of one sort or another from the Taliban. During the Iraq war, American commanders frequently made similar swaps.

Similar prisoner exchanges took place during the Vietnam war. As Juan Cole notes,

The U.S. negotiated with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, who were very much analogous to the Taliban and whom the U.S. would now certainly term “terrorists.”  In 1973, the U.S. used intermediaries to negotiate with the Viet Cong for release of captured U.S. soldiers at Loc Ninh.

As for the assertion that  “America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists,” that is not entirely true. Mitchell Riess, in his book, Negotiating with Evil, states that America has a long history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity. Here are a few examples from his book:

  • NegotiatingIn 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
  • During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.
  • In perhaps the most famous swap, after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
  • President Bill Clinton’s administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

#2: Obama failed to inform Congress of the release of the Guantanamo detainees in advance, as required by law

guantanamoUnder Section 1035(d) of the FY14 NDAA, Congress must be given 30 days notice of any transfer of detainees from Guantanamo. Five prisoners were released from the detention facility at Guantanamo and handed over to officials in Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom. Under the conditions of their release, all five are to remain in Qatar for one year, after which both Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained that he did not receive any communication on the prisoner swap from the administration until Monday (June 2). And Republican House Leader, John Boehner, stated on Tuesday that

[the administration] has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down and the calculations the White House and relevant agencies made in moving forward without consulting Congress.

But Congress was consulted in advance. In fact, negotiations began nearly two and a half years ago to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. As The Washington Post reported on Tuesday,

Obama administration officials first discussed with senior House Republicans the possibility of swapping five terrorism detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in late November 2011.

The possible prisoner exchange was discussed again during a briefing on Jan. 31, 2012, after senior House Republicans sent two letters to the Obama administration seeking more information on the possibility of the swap.

There had been little progress in the negotiations over the last year, but then an opportunity opened up and the President acted quickly. As he explained to the media earlier this week,

We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity, and we were concerned about Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and National Security Counsel spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden have both defended the legality of the prisoner exchange as fully complying with US law.

#3: Bergdahl didn’t deserve to be rescued

Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffen suggested on Tuesday that Sgt. Bergdahl was a military deserter and possibly even a collaborator with the Taliban. Conservative politicians and commentators have repeated this meme.  But the facts show a much more complicated situation. As Michael Tomasky reports,

Yes, he volunteered to join the Army, but only after he’d been turned down by the French Foreign Legion. Once on the ground in Afghanistan, he was a deeply disillusioned soldier. Shortly after his battalion took its first casualty, he emailed his parents a scathing indictment of the military and everything he saw around him.

Michael Hastings provides a much more detailed picture of these circumstances in his June 2012 profile on Bowe Bergdahl for Rolling Stone (summarized this week by Tim Dickinson).

Bergdahl grew up in rural Idaho, living “nearly off the grid.” He had a strict conservative Christian upbringing, was home schooled, and highly idealistic. One of the members of his unit in Afghanistan reports that Bowe thought of himself as a survivalist, claiming that “he knew how to survive with nothing” due to his upbringing in Idaho. At one point he said, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

Am soldiers-AfghanistanAs his tour of duty dragged on, he became more and more disillusioned with American actions in Afghanistan, describing them as “disgusting.” He was particularly troubled by seeing an Afghan child run over by an American truck. He wrote to his parents saying,

I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid … . We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks.

Dickinson reports that

After receiving an email from his father exhorting him to “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE,” Bowe slipped out of his unit’s barracks on June 30th, 2009. One man versus the wilds of Afghanistan, Bergdahl was equipped with just a knife, water, a digital camera and his diary. Barely 24 hours later, he’d be taken prisoner.

To say that Sgt. Bergdahl didn’t deserve to be freed from his captors flies in the face of a military tradition that is held to be sacrosanct: One doesn’t leave another soldier behind in the field.

stanley-mcchrystalRetired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the war effort in Afghanistan at the time of Bergdahl’s June 2009 disappearance, stated this point clearly earlier this week.

 “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.”

It is possible that charges will still be laid against Sgt. Bergdahl. But McChrystal cautioned,

We’re going to have to wait and talk to Sgt. Bergdahl now and get his side of the story. One of the great things about America is we should not judge until we know the facts. And after we know the facts, then we should make a mature judgment on how we should handle it.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey also stated his own personal position:

Martin_Dempsey[T]he questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family.

We can expect the personal attacks on Sgt. Bergdahl to continue. And we should expect attacks on President Obama for his involvement in obtaining Bergdahl’s release to continue as well. Some are even calling for the President to be impeached over how he handled the prisoner exchange.

Conservative critics have worked quickly to turn the release of America’s last prisoner of war in Afghanistan from an occasion for national celebration into a platform for political condemnation. One can only imagine their vitriol if President Obama had abandoned Sgt. Bergdahl and let the last Afghanistan prisoner of war die in captivity. They are trying to have it both ways.

This is political opportunism at its worst.


Photo credits AP/US Army

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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