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Bergdahl Uproar Has WH in Damage Control Mode

Bergdahl Uproar Has WH in Damage Control Mode

By Alexis Simendinger - June 4, 2014

What could be more uplifting? Amid a national uproar over veterans’ health care, President Obama would surprise Americans and the steadfast parents of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by celebrating a soldier’s negotiated rescue from the Taliban’s clutches after five long years.

As the Afghanistan War lumbered to what Obama vowed last week would be a “responsible” end, the last American POW from that conflict would come home.

That was the script, but the rest of the story sent the White House scrambling into its third day of damage control Tuesday. Obama found himself spending part of his day defending his decisions even though he was traveling in Poland. Back home, the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, went to Capitol Hill seeking to quiet accusations that the president ignored statutory instructions to alert Congress in advance about such prisoner swaps. Lawmakers urged investigatory hearings.

Behind the scenes, White House staff members hastened to marshal support from advocacy groups and military representatives, including a statement from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and another from Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The president’s communications team unearthed earlier, contrasting statements from some GOP lawmakers as a way to use partisan politics as an explanation for the blowback.

The price of retrieving Bergdahl via U.S. Army Special Forces was one-for-five, meaning the administration agreed to trade five terror suspects selected by the Taliban from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the adventure-loving Army volunteer from a small town in Idaho.

It was not without risks, known risks.

In fact, the commander-in-chief, who vowed in 2008 to close Gitmo, knew that in 2011 and 2012, when talks with the Taliban wobbled before breaking off, that some lawmakers objected to the administration’s efforts, arguing against negotiations with Taliban extremists, and warning that Gitmo prisoners, if released, would work anew to kill Americans and U.S. allies.

At the White House, where the president shared his lectern Saturday with Bergdahl’s parents (who happened to be in Washington on a previously planned trip and did not know until hours before that their son was safe), Obama was familiar with Bob and Jani’s go-anywhere/stop-at-nothing efforts to secure their son’s release, officials acknowledged.

Bob Bergdahl, among many of his other public efforts on behalf of his son, supported a citizen petition that attracted 9,239 signatures calling for the U.S. rescue of Bowe. It had been sent to the White House.

But by Tuesday nearly 13,000 irate citizens had signed another petition posted to the White House website calling for the administration to “punish Bowe Bergdahl for being AWOL/desertion during Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Obama was familiar, too, with the Defense Department’s examination of reports dating to the time of Bergdahl’s capture that he had deserted his unit or was AWOL shortly before he was taken prisoner, setting off a search and rescue mission that resulted in the deaths of six fellow soldiers.

The president also privately knew for almost a week that a prisoner swap with the Taliban was tantalizingly close to being concluded, administration officials said. Obama and his team opted not to alert lawmakers, or President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, because they feared leaks would scuttle talks that relied on the government of Qatar as the middleman. And if that happened, they worried that the release would slip away, perhaps for good.

During a week in which Obama hailed an end to U.S. combat in Afghanistan, defended the contours of his foreign policies during a West Point commencement address, and accepted the resignation of his Veterans Affairs secretary, four-star Gen. Eric Shinseki, the president imagined that the rescue of an American POW would be cheered, rather than condemned, especially by active-duty military and veterans.

But the trade-offs, motives, and peculiar White House communications invited scrutiny of Sgt. Bergdahl’s service record, of the politics of his bearded father, of the adage that Americans “leave no soldier behind,” and the conventional wisdom that the United States refuses to negotiate with terrorists because doing so encourages future seizures of personnel.

Dempsey and other administration officials conceded that a full examination of Bergdahl’s service record in Afghanistan and his capture are pending, and could result in potential punitive action by the Defense Department. That possibility, they argued, is entirely separate from the merits of securing his release and return to the United States. Bergdahl, 28, is expected to recover for an unspecified period of time at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Meanwhile, lawmakers lost no time in questioning the administration’s actions, arguing that by law their assent was required before detainees are transferred from the Guantanamo detainee facility in Cuba. White House aides apologized Tuesday for the tardy notifications on Capitol Hill, explaining to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that offering Congress a 30-day advance notification had been impossible.

The president’s team believes notification requirements in law do not constitutionally bind Obama’s decisions as commander-in-chief, and do not require the president to obtain Congress’s express approval.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Blinken, joined by other members of the national security team, explained the “unique circumstance” of Bergdahl’s release to lawmakers.

An NSC official would not comment directly to describe Blinken’s conversations, but told RCP that following Bergdahl’s release Saturday, officials from the White House, State and Defense departments, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence were in “close touch” with members of Congress and their staffs, and would continue those discussions.

Appearing on MSNBC Tuesday while standing on the White House lawn, Blinken said the administration remained confident that Qatar would keep “a tight check on the activities and the movements” of the five Afghan prisoners who were flown there from Cuba. “We have the assurances we need from the government of Qatar,” he said, deflecting a question about Qatar’s record of supporting terror groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. “We’ll be watching very carefully,” he added.

That won’t be enough for Republican lawmakers, who want hearings on the matter, backed by House Speaker John Boehner. In a statement, the speaker said the administration consulted him and key congressional chairmen in late 2011 and January 2012 about the possibility of a prisoner exchange. But reactions were negative, and lawmakers expected the administration to consult them anew, should an opening present itself again to retrieve the Army sergeant, Boehner said.

The speaker said the White House opted not to consult lawmakers in recent days because “the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition.”

At the prospect of new GOP-chaired hearings and a military decision about Bergdahl’s service performance in Afghanistan at a later date, administration officials patiently defended Obama’s intentions -- despite their weariness after a seemingly endless spring of rolling domestic messes. But they also invented scorched-earth, straw-man arguments in which they maintained that administration critics would have preferred that Bergdahl “rot” in a Taliban prison. Privately, they vented that saving a soldier who might not be a saint, in exchange for five prisoners perceived as evil since 9/11, was more of a public relations challenge than they’d bargained for.

“I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security,” the president told reporters Tuesday. His comments came during a news conference in Warsaw at the start of a week in which he’ll mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, where 9,387 Americans remain buried.

“We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl's health,” he added. “We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”

No matter how Bergdahl served his country in Afghanistan, volunteering to wear the U.S. uniform means his country could not forsake him, administration officials said. “Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity,” Obama said. “Period. Full stop.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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