Count me among the confounded by the White House handling of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. With the caveat that there's still much we don't know, on the surface it appears we were outnegotiated in the 5:1 swap with the Taliban, particularly in light of the circumstances that gave rise to the soldier's capture.
Bergdahl is not Benghazi. It was immediately evident that this debate does more than divide along partisan lines when GOP wordsmith Frank Luntz tweeted: "You can't say you 'support the troops,' then argue against negotiations to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity." While Luntz was supportive, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the lack of consultation with Congress, only to have conservative Charles Krauthammer opine that such approval was not necessary.
The White House was caught flat-footed by what was a predictable backlash, furthering the perception that this was not thought through. Announcing a deal with the Taliban is the sort of thing you do in a Friday document dump, not in a Rose Garden speech with a father who's grown a beard to show understanding of the Taliban and boasts "Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim" - meaning "In the name of Allah, most gracious, most compassionate." Where was the staff work? Did the White House know that, according to the Washington Post, a few days prior, Robert Bergdahl had tweeted to a Taliban spokesman and then removed: "I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, amen." Did President Obama not know that, according to a June 2012 Rolling Stone story, when Bergdahl had sent his last email home on June 27, 2009, he wrote: "The horror that is America is disgusting," a missive to which his father replied with a subject line saying: "Obey your conscience!" One wonders what would have been the result had Dad instead said, "Honor your commitment" or "Get some help." Those aren't the father/son exchanges that National Security Adviser Susan Rice must have had in mind when telling George Stephanopoulos that Bergdahl "served with honor and distinction." And while it's important that we not convict Bergdahl based upon a magazine story, it's difficult to dismiss the narrative by Michael Hastings, which suggests that in the early morning hours of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl approached his team leader and asked whether it would cause problems if he left the base with his rifle and night-vision goggles. He was told it would, and then did leave, with water, a knife, his digital camera, and his diary. For 90 days there was an exhaustive search, and his colleagues now suggest that men died while trying to locate Bergdahl, although exactly how many is not clear.
A few days ago, I asked Richard Clarke, formerly a top counterterrorism official, whether the way Bergdahl got into Taliban hands was relevant to today's debate. Clarke was quick to point out he's on the outside and not equipped with all the facts but acknowledged he was "a little troubled by this one." "Let's say there was clear evidence someone had defected, then I wouldn't feel any obligation ... if it's a clear defection, then I'd be less concerned about getting him back," Clarke said.
Clarke is right, assuming what's known today was known to the military when Bergdahl went missing. The president doesn't see it that way. When asked about the decision during last week's trip to Poland, he 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. Period. Full stop. We don't condition that. And that's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over in the war theater should expect from not just their commander-in-chief but the United States of America." I can think of two reasons for him to ignore the "circumstances" surrounding Bergdahl, neither of which assuages my concern over the release of five Taliban leaders: First, that this is part of a larger deal with the Taliban, intended to secure a lasting peace in Afghanistan as our involvement winds down. Second, where the president is intent on closing Guantanamo, and where we haven't sentenced, much less tried, the detainees, he's concluded that he may as well get something of value in return for their release, namely the only American POW from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Whatever the true rationale, now that the call's been made, the right path is for a full investigation to commence. If it's determined that Bergdahl deserted, he should be prosecuted in a court of military justice. No doubt his five years of captivity would be a mitigating factor in his sentence, but the rule of law demands that the case not end with his return, particularly if men died searching for him.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.