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The Administration's Bowe Bergdahl Fairy Tale

The Administration's Bowe Bergdahl Fairy Tale

By Tom Bevan - June 3, 2014

Those watching cable television Saturday afternoon or perusing the headlines the following morning were treated to a surprise story with the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: The president of the United States steps up to a sun-splashed podium in the Rose Garden flanked by the grateful parents of an American soldier held captive for nearly five years.

The return of U.S. Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl was, according to the White House’s script, “a joyous occasion” and a fulfillment of one of America’s “most sacred obligations” of never leaving a man behind on the battlefield. For his family and friends, it certainly was both of those things.

But it was more than that. Even as the administration’s spinners fanned out the following morning on the Sunday talk shows to further regale Americans with the heartwarming tale of Bergdahl’s return, the story began to unravel as uncomfortable questions began popping up about the details of the swap:

-- Why did the administration fail to give Congress 30 days’ advance notice of the transfer of five Guantanamo Bay detainees, as required by law -- one signed by President Obama himself?

-- Was the release of five of the most dangerous and hardened prisoners from Guantanamo too steep a price to pay, and what assurances did we receive that these terrorists would not return to the battlefield and kill more Americans?

-- Had the administration reversed a long-standing U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists?

-- How had Bowe Bergdahl come to be taken prisoner in the first place?

This last question was the most disturbing.  Fellow soldiers from his own unit have come forth to claim Bergdahl just walked off his post one night in June 2009. They considered him a deserter. Making matters worse, several soldiers lost their lives in efforts to recover him from the Taliban.

None of this was mentioned by the president, or any administration official, even though it was well known inside the Army, which investigated the sketchy circumstances of the soldier’s disappearance.

Among those working on Sunday to spin the administration’s narrative of Bergdahl’s return -- and gloss over questions about the details of the prisoner swap -- was none other than Susan Rice, who played a starring role in the Obama administration’s efforts at misdirection over the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Rice was in similar form Sunday, sticking to the White House’s pre-approved script and dodging questions about the details of the exchange. Asked why Congress wasn’t informed, Rice first said that members had been briefed many times on the subject of negotiating with the Taliban. Asked about this assertion, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that there had been discussions about whether to engage the Taliban -- but not about swapping Bergdahl for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

Rice also asserted that the administration was forced to move quickly and bypass Congress because of Bergdahl’s “acute” medical condition.  Rice did not offer any specifics for this justification, and there is no evidence -- other than the administration's claim -- that Bergdahl’s health condition was life-threatening.

Rice also deflected questions about what assurances the government of Qatar, which helped broker the deal and will house the five released terrorists, had provided the United States to make sure they would not pose a future threat. Her answer essentially was that we have to take the administration’s word for it.

When queried about claims that Bowe Bergdahl may have gone simply AWOL, Rice responded that he had served America with “honor and distinction.” According to his fellow soldiers, neither of those adjectives accurately reflects his service record.

In the end, the administration’s carefully crafted story of Bergdahl’s homecoming has crumbled, leaving more questions than answers. What the White House surely viewed as a public relations coup and chance to generate positive news coverage amid the VA scandal has turned into another fiasco and yet another example of the disturbing trend in Obama’s tenure for putting public relations triumphs ahead of sound public policy concerns.

In this case, they may have gotten neither one.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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