The reason Bowe Bergdahl’s recovery has become such a controversy is because of a climate of distrust the Obama administration has cultivated in light of a multitude of previous scandals, the clear effort to portray the Bergdahl story as a success when it is clearly not, and the US Military’s desperation to avoid embarrassment. The betrayal of multiple principles further stokes the coals of discontent and causes cognitive dissonance in people who hold those principles, values and beliefs. If we don’t enforce and protect those ideas and expectations it would imply they are of no value. Let’s take a few minutes to examine several of the issues surrounding the Bergdahl situation.
There is little doubt that PFC Bergdahl deserted on June 30, 2009. There was no patrol on which he fell back, as he claimed in a video. Later reports from Afghans stated that Bergdahl asked where he could find the Taliban. Daily firsthand accounts by troops who were present and served with Bergdahl fill in the gaps of the ongoing investigation. The classified 2010 15-6 investigation is said to contain “incontrovertible” evidence that Bergdahl deserted.
What is open source is the superhuman effort by our forces in theatre to recover him. Forces were surged into the area to keep the Taliban from moving Bergdahl to Pakistan. At least six Americans were killed conducting operations to find Bergdahl. The Combat Outpost (COP) at Camp Keating had aircraft that were dedicated to shutting the COP down, but which were instead retasked to support the effort to find Bergdahl, delaying its planned closure. The COP was attacked by hundreds of Taliban. Eight Americans were killed and 27 wounded in a battle so fierce that two Medals of Honor were awarded (Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter), something that had not happened since Mogadishu.
Last Saturday, Sergeant Bergdahl was traded for five high-level Taliban operatives held at Gitmo. This was the culmination of years of attempts to secure Bergdahl’s release. One of the first issues of contention over Bergdahl’s release was conflicting characterizations of the event as “negotiating with terrorists” vs. a “prisoner transfer.” Technically, it’s both, but there is substantial hyperbole on each side.
We’ve had a long standing prohibition against negotiating with terrorists, and for good cause. It mitigates the stress of knuckling under to an enemy who would blackmail our nation. Negotiation with terrorists also gives them and their cause a level of credibility. We shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, and stating it was a third party doing the negotiation is a canard.
On the other hand, we’ve been at war for quite a while with the Taliban and automatically grant them many of the accords afforded a uniformed enemy. Few know that, according to international law, we could put mechanisms in place that could result in the relatively quick execution of captured non-uniformed Taliban as saboteurs or spies. We were also instrumental in facilitating the Taliban opening a diplomatic office in a Doha, though the office was subsequently closed when the Taliban made much of the propaganda coup. By affording the Taliban many of the rights we give a uniformed enemy, and helping them establish a diplomatic office, we undermined their technical classification as terrorists. Such is the danger of behaving as a civilized and reasonable nation.
The US has conducted prisoner transfer since the founding of our nation, but those transfers were for like numbers and grades of personnel, often for grievously wounded personnel who could not return to the fight or were prohibited from doing so for the duration of the conflict. The lopsided trade of five Taliban members who have trained, organized, planned and led hundreds for a soldier responsible for no one but himself provides the enemy with the capability to do much more harm against the US than what we could respond with by putting SGT Bergdahl back on the line.
More disturbingly, it creates further motivation for the enemy to conduct operations to capture Americans (or their bodies) in return for a lopsided gain in fighting strength to be negotiated later. One has to look no further than the Israeli example where terror groups almost routinely conduct operations to capture Israeli troops, which often result in IDF deaths. A secondary effect is that it reinforces a belief among the enemy where the capture or death of one American is worth a large number of enemy dead. If one is truly interested in defeating an enemy, it behooves one to not help the enemy make sense of the losses they receive resisting you. The highly unequal “prisoner trade” we engaged in strains the definition of the word “trade.”
What should happen to SGT Bergdahl? He should be nursed back to health and allowed to see his family before he is court martialed. This may seem a rush to judgment to some, but it’s been five years since Bergdahl deserted, during which time this episode has already been investigated as a highly classified incident because of its embarrassing nature. The recovery of SGT Bergdahl allows for his personal input should he choose to participate, given his Fifth Amendment rights, but we have convicted others with far less. To not charge and convict SGT Bergdahl would be an equal betrayal of the “creed” as leaving him behind would have been.
Article 85 of the UCMJ covers desertion. During time of war, the max punishment can be death. 50,000 troops deserted during WWII. Only one, PVT Eddie Slovik, was shot. It’s exceedingly doubtful Bergdahl would be the first deserter sentenced to death in almost 70 years. No doubt, Bergdahl’s five years in custody of the enemy should be a consideration in sentencing, as so should the type of discharge. There are several types of common military discharges. Whatever discharge Bergdahl should receive as a result of a court martial, he should not share the status of those who have earned an Honorable or General discharge if we want to preserve the value of those types of discharges and the benefits those vets have earned.
What will happen to SGT Bergdahl is questionable. There are many political forces (civilian and military) that want to portray the release as a success, and it’s in that interest that Bergdahl should be portrayed as worth the cost of securing his release. Personally, considering the repeated failures of the Obama administration and the US Military to hold people accountable, I have a sinking feeling that nothing significant will happen to Bergdahl. The Army will try to transition him out to the civilian world as quickly as possible, as determined by the public’s memory and along a path that will shed the least amount of light on the embarrassment that is his desertion.
Today, General Dempsey the Chairman of the JCS reminded us that Bergdahl is “innocent until proven guilty” and that, “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.” Dempsey also stated that any decision would be up to the Army. The media campaign is already in full swing, as his five years of custody is being portrayed by some as punishment enough. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby referred to it as a “pretty high price to pay after walking off a base.”
The Commander in Chief’s decision to not notify Congress before conducting the recovery is portrayed by some as a violation of law. President Obama signed into law a pledge to notify Congress 30 days before moving Gitmo prisoners as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. He also signed a “signing document” at the time (as other Presidents have) stating that parts of the law were unconstitutional, violating the constitution’s separation of powers. As a Senator, Obama said he would not use signing documents.
The New York Times reported that the President felt there wasn’t enough time to notify Congress. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken apologized to Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was notified before the Bin Laden raid. The misstep is now being called an “oversight.” “No time.” Sounds a lot like “not enough intel,” which was the knee jerk response in Benghazi to why we didn’t act, despite the fact we had former SEALs and CIA operatives on the ground (fully capable of assessing the situation), as well as UAVs in the air and radio, telephone and e-mail communication with people on the ground.
Clues to the maneuvering going on behind the scenes can be seen in the hesitancy of the military to publish a five-year-old letter Bergdahl left when he deserted his post. The letter has been classified. Why? What could a PFC potentially say on the eve of his flight that would be a matter of national security? This air of secrecy is punctuated by the Army requiring conventional troops to sign NDAs (a first in my memory) surrounding Bergdahl. Contrast this with the flood of information that allowed the Wall Street Journal to write a story detailing the blow-by-blow of Bergdahl’s recovery days after his release, yet a blanket of secrecy remains over what happened five years ago.
Bergdahl’s release was coincidentally announced the day after General Shinseki resigned from the VA in the midst of that scandal. Congress is concerned that the release of the five Taliban is a test case for a path to close Guantanamo and circumvent Congress. The administration’s hosting of Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden, a spot where past Medal of Honor recipients have been hosted, should have caused someone to question that decision. Bergdahl’s quirky father speaking in Arabic served to further stoke suspicion, but the administration should have known better, given access to the classified 2010 15-6 investigation that found the Bergdahl desertion all but “incontrovertible.” Former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, infamous for her Benghazi role, didn’t help matters with her revisionist claims that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.”
Bergdahl’s release is a “success” for the administration and the military. As long as we are discussing it we aren’t discussing other issues, and so the public affairs officers will be busy providing status reports on Bergdahl’s recovery, and not the new 15-6 investigation that will support the commander’s decision to charge, chapter or return Bergdahl to the service.
There are a myriad of issues and controversy orbiting the Bergdahl case. It’s a surprising development given that efforts to get Bergdahl released have been going on for years. If one doesn’t believe a media plan has been prepared in excruciating detail, that means the people in charge are incompetent or they think we are. As the Bergdahl case develops, remember that the most important issues are what do we stand for and, more importantly, what do we stand against. It will be hard to remain focused on this topic as the powers that be try to sway opinion to support their desired outcome.
(Featured Image Courtesy: NBC News)