Bergdahl Swap Exacts a Heavy Political Price
Policy + Politics

Bergdahl Swap Exacts a Heavy Political Price

REUTERS/via Reuters TV

The Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap dominated Washington’s Sunday conversation, and for the Obama White House it was a troubling replay.

Once again, a top administration official took to the airwaves to make the administration’s case, only to immediately face bipartisan questions about credibility and candor.

This Sunday, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who drew the short straw, trying to calm the political furor – both over the exchange itself and the White House decision to keep Congress in the dark despite a law requiring 30-days advance notice.

On CNN’s State of the Union, Kerry insisted there were adequate safeguards in place to limit any efforts by the five free Taliban leaders to return to prominent terror roles. Kerry, in his first public comments on the exchange, argued no one should “doubt the capacity of America to protect America.”

Related: Taliban Says Bergdahl Deal Means More Kidnappings 

But there were immediate doubts, the quickest retort coming from a senior Democrat.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said On CBS’ Face the Nation, “I heard John Kerry this morning say, you know, ‘don’t worry about them in Doha.’ You can’t help but worry about them in Doha. We have no information on how the United States is actually going to see that they remain in Doha.”  

House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, appearing on ABC’s This Week, said the deal has effectively “empowered the Taliban.”  He told George Stephanopoulos, “The one thing they wanted more than anything was recognition from the U.S. government, so they can use that to propagandize against areas that are unsecure still in Afghanistan…. We’re going to pay for this decision for years.”

No doubt, the deal has been kept very close within the inner circle of the Obama Administration. “In the eyes of many of us,” said the Democratic senator, “too close.”

In addition to the usual parade of politicians, this week’s Sunday circuit included critical accounts from Army colleagues who question the terms of the deal – and President Obama’s Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate Bergdahl’s release.

Some of the most powerful voices criticizing Bergdahl come from members of his own platoon. Josh Cornelison, a former medic in Bergdahl’s unit, appeared on Fox News Sunday with one very clear message: “Bowe Bergdahl is not a hero.” The former Army specialist recalled running missions for months trying to find Bergdahl after he wandered off their remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2011. “He did not serve with honor or any kind of distinction”, said Cornelison. “He is a deserter and he needs to be held 100 percent accountable.”

The “distinction” debate was sparked by last weekend’s lead Obama administration Sunday messenger, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who sparked a firestorm when she said that Sgt. Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction” in Afghanistan.

Related: Susan Rice Is the Biggest Loser in Bergdahl Affair

Clinton Weighs In
An additional subplot this Sunday was the voice of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her new book Hard Choices is due out Tuesday, and her media blitz as part of the publishing rollout comes as the debate about the Bergdahl swap is front and center.

In addition to airing a new interview with Secretary Clinton, ABC also highlighted a new poll showing her with enviable ratings as she moves closer to a decision on seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

The new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that among registered voters, 69 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor her for the party’s nomination.

While the added attention on Clinton may help her sell more books, it’s forcing her media team to pivot. The current strategy is a delicate—and newly choreographed—dance. Clinton made sure not to be overly critical of the Obama Administration, but stopped short of endorsing the details of the prisoner swap. It’s all part of an attempt to reestablish her personal brand—and to a degree, distance herself from the Obama Administration.

In her book, finished before the five-for-one Bergdahl swap, Secretary Clinton discusses the debates in her time at Foggy Bottom about negotiating with the Taliban and writes, given the history and the price of the post 9/11 Afghan war, opening the door to negotiations with the terrorist network "would be hard to swallow for many Americans."

Related: Bipartisan Deal Reached on Better Care for Veterans

Clinton aides have let it be known in recent days she would have preferred a tougher deal, but in the interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Secretary Clinton said she would not second guess the President and empathized with his dilemma.

“There are competing interests and values,” Clinton said. “One of our values is we bring everybody home off the battlefield the best we can. It doesn’t matter how they ended up in a prisoner of war situation.” 

Related: Bergdahl Fallout Signals Obama’s Risky Strategy

There is little or no debate about the national duty to bring a U.S. POW home. It is the price tag that has Washington in a frenzy.

Mike Rogers echoed California Democrat Feinstein in saying the administration’s insistence it had to act now – and secretly – did not withstand scrutiny when administration aides are called into classified closed-door congressional questioning. 

“What so angered those of us who’ve followed it for years — this was not the only option,” Rogers said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The administration has this theory that you’re either with them or you’re for thermonuclear war, and there’s nothing in between. That’s just wrong.”

If there was a bright light for the administration, it was in the remarks of a George W. Bush administration legal voice who was sharply critical of the swap itself, but defended the commander in chief’s right to make such executive decisions.         

President Obama signed a law last year that requires the president to notify congress at least 30 days before releasing prisoners from the Guantanamo detention center. Some congressional critics say it is a black and white case of the President violating the law.

Related: Ted Cruz – Bergdahl Should Feel Guilty for Deal 

But former Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, on FOX, said: “He broke the law, but I believe that the law itself is unconstitutional. …Article II [of the U.S. Constitution] makes him the commander in chief of the armed forces. These people were in the custody of the armed forces. 

The week at the White House began with a home court victory lap in the Rose Garden, and ended with a president—and his top official playing defense on national television. 

As Senator Feinstein aptly put it: “It’s a mixed bag, at best.”

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