Susan Rice may want to stay away from the Sunday shows from now on.
Rice, President Obama’s National Security Adviser, appeared on CNN and ABC over the weekend to discuss the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was released over the weekend in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who had been held at the U.S. military’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Things did not go well. Rice is now under attack for a number of statements and claims that appear to be demonstrably untrue.
Among other things, Rice tried to claim the administration had advised Congress of the deal in advance. She also said that Bergdahl had served the United States “with honor and distinction” and suggested that Bergdahl had been taken in a combat situation, saying he was “captured…on the battlefield.” These last two claims in particular are being savaged by Republican critics today, as details of Bergdahl’s actions in Afghanistan are becoming clearer.
It has long been known that Bergdahl walked away from his post in Afghanistan nearly five years ago, an action that would make him, at best, absent without leave from his unit. But in the days since his release, current and former soldiers who served with Bergdahl have come forward with stories about his behavior that suggest he may have planned to leave the Army permanently, which implies the more serious crime of desertion. Others have charged that U.S. soldiers sent out to search for him died as a result of his actions – a claim that has not been verified by Defense Department officials.
Defense officials said Tuesday that there would be a “full inquiry” into the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Army “will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.
The administration’s decision to trade the five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl is controversial for many reasons, not least of which is that the administration violated a law requiring the White House to notify Congress 30 days before any prisoners are released or transferred from Guantanamo.
Appearing on CNN, Rice was asked why the administration decided to make the deal for Bergdahl’s release without informing Congress. Her response was to try to conflate discussing a possible deal with lawmakers and informing them that an actual deal had been struck:
Candy Crowley: Is there no one in Congress you can trust with the information, or call up the chairmen of the Intelligence Committees, on the chairwoman on the Senate side, and say, I want you to know this is happening, we have to act now?
Susan Rice: Well, we did do that. In fact, we had briefed Congress in the past about this potential...
Crowley: In the past, but when you knew you were going?
Rice: And when we -- when the deal was done and Sergeant Bergdahl was in U.S. custody is when we began making notifications to Congress.
Republicans have also attacked the administration for “negotiating with terrorists” and “putting a price” on U.S. personnel – claiming that the deal to free Bergdahl will encourage other groups to kidnap American soldiers as bargaining chips. Others have claimed that the five men released, who will be restricted to the Middle East nation of Qatar for a year, are too dangerous to be allowed to roam free.
However, it was Rice’s dubious praise of Bergdahl’s service and her insistence that Congress had been kept adequately informed that so rankled many Republicans.
Washington Examiner correspondent Byron York sent out this facetious tweet on Tuesday morning:
I'm beginning to worry that when it comes to Sunday shows, Susan Rice might not be entirely trustworthy.— Byron York (@ByronYork) June 3, 2014
Former George W. Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer was similarly dismissive:
Pres O top aide Susan Rice says Bergdahl served with "honor". Many soldiers say he's a deserter & a traitor. Hard to square the two.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) June 3, 2014
Rice, of course, was already a bête noire of the conservative right because of another appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows. In September of 2012, she was sent out to deliver the administration’s talking points on that year’s September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
Rice testified that the attack arose spontaneously out of a protest, though it was later discovered that the attack on the facility had been an operation organized by a local terrorist cell. Rice was able to point to Central Intelligence Agency reports from the time showing that her statements reflected the actual thinking of intelligence services at the time, but some Republicans have consistently accused the administration of a conspiracy to cover up the response to the attack, and have regularly invoked Rice’s incorrect statements as part of the evidence for their claim.
After the Benghazi attacks, Rice was able to point, with some justification, to the talking points she had been given as the reason the information she delivered turned out to be false. Whether there is any similar defense available for her description of Bergdahl’s service is unclear, but seems unlikely.
It is inconceivable that the administration didn’t know the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure from his unit, and the idea that such information wouldn’t have been shared with the president’s national security adviser is ridiculous. Barring an unlikely admission of incompetence, the only credible explanation seems to be that Rice was trying to whitewash Bergdahl’s record for public relations purposes.
How serious a transgression that is remains a question for debate. Bergdahl reportedly told comrades that he was thinking of walking to India – a distance of hundreds of miles across not just war-torn Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, where many anti-U.S. forces were stationed. If that was his real purpose, it can’t be ruled out that he was simply not in his right mind at the time. Perhaps Rice could claim that her comment about “honor and distinction” were meant to deflect attention from the possibility that Bergdahl suffered some sort of breakdown during his time in the service.
Regardless of her motives, the most recent flap raises the question of whether Rice can be seen as a believable source when she speaks to the media in the future. At the moment, conservative commentators are fighting hard to make that answer “no.”
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: