The release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was exchanged for five former high-level Taliban officials Saturday after being held as a prisoner of war for nearly five years, had official Washington walking a tightrope on Sunday morning. The White House, which clearly played fast and loose with the law to engineer the release, was trying to spin the deal as a matter of urgent necessity; most Republicans criticized the White House’s methods without appearing displeased that the last U.S. POW from the Afghanistan war is on his way home.
Then, there was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Speaking on ABC’s This Week, he implied that Bergdahl, who reportedly broke down in tears after U.S. Special Forces personnel told him he was really going home, ought to feel guilty about being traded for five dangerous terrorists.
Cruz said that the administration was wrong to negotiate for Bergdahl’s release in the first place, saying it was “not the only way” to get him out. “The terms of the deal are very troubling. How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?”
He said, “We can go in and use military force as needed to rescue our fallen compatriots. But look, Sgt. Bergdahl was fighting to capture these terrorists,” Cruz said. “Can you imagine what he would say to his fallen comrades who lost their lives to stop these people who were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for threatening or taking U.S. civilian lives?”
Cruz offered no evidence that the use of military force was a viable option for rescuing Bergdahl, and neither has anyone else, but numerous other Republicans echoed his broader point, that the U.S. has broken precedent by negotiating with a terrorist organization.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said in a statement, “I am extremely troubled…that the United States negotiated with terrorists…. I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”
In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Rogers explained that ransoming hostages is the primary way that the terrorist group Al Qaeda raises money in Africa, and what terrorists will take away from the Bergdahl deal is a greater incentive to target U.S. service members.
“If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world – by the way, some who are holding US hostages today – that there is some value in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before,” Rogers said. “That is dangerous.”
He also slammed the administration for violating a law, which requires the president to notify Congress 30 days in advance if it intends to release or transfer any prisoners from the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is where the five Taliban were being held.
Others were upset that the terms under which the five men were released appear to make it possible that they will eventually return to positions of power with the Taliban. According to information provided by the administration, they will be handed over to the government of Qatar, and will reside in that country for a year under a travel ban. The White House was vague about what restrictions, if any, they will face when that time is up.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), himself a former prisoner of war, described the five as “the hardest of the hardcore” and the “toughest of the tough.” He said it was “disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to return to the fight.”
The administration and its defenders in Congress adamantly defended the deal as keeping faith with the country’s men and women in uniform. In particular, the administration tried to draw a distinction between negotiating for the return of a soldier, taken prisoner in a war zone, from negotiating with hostage takers.
“What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn’t leave a man or woman on the battlefield,” said President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice. “If we got into a situation where we said because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform. Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made a similar argument on Fox News Sunday.
When host Chris Wallace pointed out that the administration had, in effect, made a deal with a terrorist organization, she said, “Unfortunately this is our enemy now. We don’t have nation states as enemies.”
She continued, “If in fact this man’s life had been lost, and it came out that we had this opportunity and our commander in chief passed on it, the Republicans would be going crazy right now.”
Rice was also asked about the decision not to inform Congress in advance of the exchange, which clearly violates the law.
She said that the administration believed the situation was especially urgent, because the administration believed that Bergdahl was in failing health. The Defense Department, she said, consulted with the Justice Department, which “determined that is was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost.”
In response to concerns that the five released Taliban would eventually commit additional violence against U.S. or Afghan forces or civilians, she said that the Emir of Qatar, who was personally involved in the deal, had promised that the men will be carefully watched and their ability to move constrained. However, she declined to give precise details.”
Pressed further, about the men presenting a danger in the future, she said the U.S. has received a set of assurances from Qatar that “substantially mitigates the risk to the United States and our national security.”
While Washington worried over the message being sent to terrorists, it took a veteran to put in perspective what Bergdahl’s release means to men and women in uniform.
“This guy’s been in captivity five years. Most of America’s forgotten his name or never knew it to begin with,” said Paul Reickhoff, founder and CEO of the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“A more important message has been sent to our forces: We will always come for you,” he said. “I was taught that in basic training. If you are captured, America will not forget about you and we will come for you. And that’s an important message to send to our troops now and forever."
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