It was never about Bowe Bergdahl.
Make no mistake: judging by the behavior of the White House as this story has unfolded, the Obama administration’s primary goal was not the return of likely deserter (and rumored defector) Bowe Bergdahl. The primary goal was making it easier to finally shut down Guantanamo Bay, a 2008-era campaign promise that President Barack Obama was regularly mocked for failing to keep. Bowe Bergdahl was just the perfect political cover, or at least he was supposed to be.
Let’s look back at how the White House wanted the story to unfold. Victory or not, the long and costly war in Afghanistan was finally coming to a close. The president had just announced plans to bring all but 9,800 troops in Afghanistan home by 2016. There was still a significant loose end, though: the Taliban had captured an American soldier and imprisoned him for nearly five years. In order for the war to truly be over, the White House needed to rescue that young man and bring him home to the country he fought so hard to defend.
Now, wars are messy things. And P.O.W. exchanges can be even messier. But because the president cared so much about leaving no man behind, he was willing to let some other bad men go in order to return a brave soldier to his family. Yes, those five Taliban terrorists probably deserve to spend their remaining days rotting in a cell, but when given a menu of only terrible options, real leaders make the tough, thankless decisions necessary to preserve the sacred honor of the U.S. armed forces.
That’s how it was supposed to go. That’s the story the White House desperately wanted the American public to buy. That’s why Obama for some reason chose to have an official Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents (the families of the soldiers who died looking for him, though, were not invited). That’s why national security adviser Susan Rice of YouTube fame was dispatched to the Sunday news circuit to tell the world that Bergdahl served the United States with “honor and distinction.” That’s why Democratic senators immediately jumped on the “American hero” bandwagon as soon as the news of the P.O.W. exchange was released.
It was all coordinated.
But that shiny facade masked a crumbling foundation. The continued lies, smears, and obfuscations from the White House should make that clear. Unlike the White House story on Bergdahl, legitimate rationales don’t collapse overnight.
Several platoon mates of Bergdahl — some named and some anonymous — have unequivocally stated that he deliberately deserted his post and had been planning to do so for some time. Others believe his actions went beyond mere desertion and may have constituted actual defection to the Taliban. Bergdahl’s team leader claims that Bergdahl sought talks with the Taliban. Other men who served with Bergdahl say that after his capture, the intensity and precision of IED attacks against American troops drastically increased, suggesting that Bergdahl may have given critical operational information to the Taliban. To date, not a single member of Bergdahl’s platoon has come forward to say that he was a loyal solider who was captured while he was doing his duties.
And then there’s the White House’s story about how it plain ‘ol forgot to tell Congress what it was doing. According to the White House, Bergdahl’s health had deteriorated so quickly that it just had no time to inform Congress and get the deal done. Maybe. But if that’s the case, how did the White House find time to bring Bergdahl’s family to the Rose Garden? They live in Idaho after all. Here’s the White House’s line on that, courtesy of TIME:
Their presence at the White House on Saturday was the apparent product of coincidence: the couple had visited the capitol for a Memorial Day event and then stayed in town for meetings in Congress. Had they been at home in Idaho when the deal was announced, they likely would not have flown to Washington to appear with Obama—and a key visual element of the drama, replayed endlessly on television, might not have occurred.
The parents of a P.O.W. just happened to be in D.C. the week before the announcement, just happened to stick around for “meetings,” and just happened to still be in the neighborhood when the White House just happened to be scheduling a Rose Garden announcement? And in the haze of all that last-second planning, the White House just plumb forgot to inform Congress, as required by a law Obama signed mere months ago?
If you buy that, then I have a Bridge to Nowhere to sell you.
The White House lied about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture (at one point, American troops in Afghanistan were even forced to sign documents pledging to never divulge any of the facts about what happened, not something you do when you’re fine with the truth coming out). The White House lied about its communications with Congress on the matter. It lied about its non-communications with Congress. Up to this point, I’m not sure if a single significant thing the White House has said about this whole affair has actually been true.
And then, once it was called on its lies, rather than coming clean and telling the truth, the White House doubled down and is now accusing Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers — the ones who didn’t desert the Army — of “swift boating” Bergdahl.
That is not how honest people pitching an honest story behave. So what’s the real story? If I had to guess, I’d say that getting Bowe Bergdahl home was not the real priority of the Obama administration. I’d say the real priority was paving the way to the final emptying and closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. And what better way to do that than by freeing its most dangerous inhabitants? After all, if it’s not being used to house the worst of the worst — and make no mistake, that’s how multiple governments characterized the Taliban Five — then what’s the point of its continued existence?
Once you look at it from that angle, the seemingly inexplicable spin from the White House suddenly begins to make sense. Obama had wanted to free the five Taliban prisoners for years, long before Bowe Bergdahl was ever even captured. At one point, he wanted to release them as part of a peace deal with the Taliban. At another, he wanted to release them as a “possible confidence-building measure.” According to TIME:
The Obama administration first considered whether the five men were safe to release at the very start of his term as president.
The question of the release of the five Taliban leaders was a recurrent subject of debate in the administration and was a key element of the behind the scenes effort by the State Department and the White House to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. The transfer of the five was discussed as a possible confidence-building measure to pave the way for a deal.
There was one constant for Obama throughout this process, and it wasn’t Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. It was the freedom of five of the most deadly Taliban terrorists. Obama couldn’t solve a problem like Guantanamo without first dealing with its most notorious and dangerous residents.
The president couldn’t just free the terrorists, though; he needed a sympathetic reason. Enter Bowe Bergdahl. The White House couldn’t just come out and say Bergdahl was a deserter, otherwise people might focus on the true cost of the deal rather than its stated benefit. Obama couldn’t just inform Congress and set a precedent for disclosure, because releasing the highest risk detainees without informing Congress would make it far easier to release terrorist middle-men without informing Congress down the road. And now that it’s in this deep, the White House is clearly incapable of simply coming clean, hence the not-so-new strategy of just demonizing its opponents.
It was never about Bowe Bergdahl. It was always about Gitmo. The question now is whether Congress is going to do anything about it.