Unanswered questions about Bergdahl case

June 3, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, June 3:

The choice facing President Barack Obama with respect to Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was terribly unappetizing. He could leave an American soldier at the mercy of his Taliban captors, who had held him for five years. Or he could give up five Taliban inmates confined at Guantanamo Bay. In the end, Obama decided the first option was even worse than the second.

Such a swap is not a radical departure. American presidents have sometimes agreed to exchange prisoners with the enemy during times of war – and that includes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Ronald Reagan gave up a Soviet spy to win the release not of an American spy or soldier, but a journalist. Reagan also sent weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages held by Iranian-supported terrorists.

Even the most indomitable foe of terrorism, the Israeli government, has often agreed to such swaps. In 2011, it released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas.

Bergdahl is said to be in frail health, and the fear was this might be the last chance to extricate him. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “We needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life.”

As for the Gitmo prisoners, the best that can be hoped is that their value to the Taliban has largely passed its sell-date. These are very bad men, and they have had years in prison to let their animosity toward the U.S. fester. The agreement called for them to be sent to Qatar, whose government will supposedly keep them from returning to the battlefield at least for a period of time.

There is fear that this deal will encourage terrorist groups to take more American hostages and hope for another such exchange of prisoners. That seems a small concern – terrorists have shown much greater interest in killing us in large numbers.

The U.S., for its part, will continue to press the battle against terrorism. An American drone strike in eastern Afghanistan last month reportedly killed at least 10 militants. The CIA has aircraft flying over Pakistan and other terrorist nests.

The overriding value of this swap is to reinforce to U.S. troops that this nation will not forget them should they be taken prisoner on the battlefield. That justifies the safe return of Bowe Bergdahl, even at a repugnant cost.

There is still plenty of mystery around how he fell into Taliban hands. Some of his fellow soldiers were not happy about the trade. Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of his unit, told CNN, “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”

Other accounts differ. Bergdahl, and the Obama administration, owe the public a full account of what happened, including why he left, what his motivation was.

And if there is good evidence that Bergdahl did in fact abandon his unit and cost the lives of other soldiers, he deserves to be prosecuted. Such an offense is not expunged by being taken prisoner.

What is known for now is that an American who enlisted to serve his country in wartime is on his way home, alive. That’s welcome news.

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