Obama Administration Pushes Back Against Criticism Of Deal That Led To Bergdahl Release
The Administration is defending itself against criticism from Republicans regarding the circumstances that led to the release of American P.O.W. Bowe Bergdahl on Saturday:
WASHINGTON — Top Obama administration officials pushed back on Sunday against Republican criticism that a deal freeing the last American held prisoner in Afghanistan could allow dangerous Taliban leaders to return to the fight, might encourage terrorist groups to seize American hostages and possibly violated a law requiring notification of Congress.
Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, spoke a day after years of fitful negotiations had finally yielded the release in Afghanistan of the prisoner, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The deal, brokered with Qatari help, also freed five high-level Taliban members from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The release of the Taliban officials was sharply assailed by Republicans, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the intelligence committee, as a dangerous transgression of longstanding policy against negotiating with terror groups.
“If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before,” Mr. Rogers said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” He added, “That is dangerous.”
But Ms. Rice said: “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle, and we did that in this instance.” She was speaking on the ABC program “This Week.”
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who himself was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for six years, welcomed the return to American custody of Sergeant Bergdahl, who had spent five years in Taliban hands in conditions that remain unclear.
But Mr. McCain said he had serious concerns about the release of the five Taliban detainees, calling them “the hardest of the hard core.” He added, “It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands” of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan.
Ms. Rice, appearing separately on CNN, noted that President Obama had received “very specific assurances” regarding the handling of the freed detainees when he spoke by phone on Tuesday with the emir of Qatar. That country is taking in the five.
Republican lawmakers also questioned the failure of the administration to give Congress the required notice of releases from Guantánamo.
Ms. Rice said the administration had felt compelled to move swiftly because Sergeant Bergdahl’s health seemed at risk and the opportunity to retrieve him possibly fleeting.
“We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and acute situation,” she said on ABC, adding that “had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the United States government.”
As I noted in my post on the initial GOP reaction to this release on Saturday evening, it strikes me that Republicans are making a big political mistake if they start attacking the President over this. I will concede that here are legitimate questions regarding the circumstances and terms of the deal that led to Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, and the question of just how much we can trust the Qataris to live up to their assurances regarding the five released prisoners. Additionally, I’m still somewhat unclear on the exact terms of the law requiring the President to give Congress advance notice of any prisoner transfer out of Guantanamo Bay and what exceptions might exist to those requirements. And, finally, there are some outstanding questions regarding the circumstances that led to Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture, including allegations that he may have deserted his post and there are also some questions regarding comments that his father has made in public.
Some of these are legitimate questions, but based on their initial reaction to the deal, it seems clear to me that Republicans seem intent on reflexively treating this story the way they treat everything that this President does, as an opportunity to bash the President. Ordinary Americans looking at this story are going to see an American soldier who was held prisoner for five years finally coming home and being reunited with the family and friends that had been missing him. It is good news and it is inevitably something that is going to inure to the President’s benefit, which may be what most sticks in the craw of some people on the right. The politically smart thing to do, it strikes me, is to express gratitude for the safe return of one of our soldiers and allow him to heal and reunite with his family. Turning this into yet another opportunity to bash the President and score political points just comes across as petty, and if Republicans think voters aren’t going to notice that kind of pettiness they are kidding themselves.
An American solider is home, his family is happy. Perhaps Republicans should keep their reflexive desire to score political points against the President suppressed for at least a few days. Not only might it be the politically smart thing to do, it also happens to be the decent and humane thing to do.