We are witnessing a media firestorm over the trade of five Taliban POWs for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl the likes of which are rarely seen. It scares me a little because it is fed by misinformation, misplaced anger and passion.
We have developed such a partisan reflex in this country that we automatically see every national issue within a campaign framework. Now the basic issues involved in the prisoner swap are points on which sincere people may differ. But these subjects are all being re-framed by political professionals as "a chance to smear President Obama."
Several news outlets independently reported that a Republican strategist, who is also a Fox News contributor, has stage-managed the recruiting and TV appearances of Bergdahl's comrades. Then, too, the president didn't help by inviting the parents of Sgt. Bergdahl to a White House press conference, which the ever-cynical media interrupted as an election-year public relations event.
I am especially alarmed by evidence I see of a public lynching of Sgt. Bergdahl, based on information now revealed as selectively fed to the public by skillful media professionals. It's becoming almost impossible to sort things out; some accusations that have no proof (like desertion) are being talked about by mainstream reporters as a given.
The public is being so grossly misinformed in so many areas of this controversy that I've decided to devote this column to presenting facts on key events, and charges making the airwaves. There are three areas to the POW story: Guantanamo Bay, the release and exchange of Gitmo prisoners and notification of Congress.
How did we come to this pass? The short answer is: fear -- and politicians' exploitation of that fear. In the aftermath of 9/11 we swept up hundreds of prisoners and dumped them at Gitmo, where we could detain them indefinitely without charges or trials.
The problem is that they became a liability and a stain on our commitment to the rule of law. Congress tied Obama's hands in 2010, passing a law that forbade Obama from transferring any of the war prisoners to U.S. federal prison facilities. Some members of Congress waged an unceasing campaign to prevent civilian trials. Sooner or later, we would have to deal with them.
So, to the issues:
"Obama negotiated with terrorists." The terms of the Bergdahl swap were negotiated with Qatar, not the Taliban, and were limited to a prisoner exchange. There's a difference between negotiating demands made by terrorists who've captured innocent civilians and a straightforward prisoner-of-war exchange.
"Obama could have gotten a better deal than exchanging five Taliban for our one soldier." Only a dozen Taliban are left at Gitmo. And there is precedent: In 2006, Israel swapped 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier.
"These were 'high-value' prisoners." According to Gitmo specialist and McClatchy journalist Carol Rosenberg, none were ever classified as "high-value detainees." The former chief prosecutor at Gitmo (under George W. Bush), Col. Morris Davis, chose not to prosecute them and recently tweeted "so much for ... them being 'the worst of the worst.'"
"Bergdahl deserted his unit." The Army Times reports Bergdahl "walked away" from camp on at least one occasion and returned. He clearly left without permission, but his motives are as yet unknown. "We have no indication that he intended to leave permanently," a government official told the Times. Nor do the military files mention any note left behind. Military officials are adamant about making a proper investigation of this charge.
"Bergdahl is a traitor." There is zero evidence to support this. He celebrated Christmas and Easter while in captivity with strict Islamists looking on, and wept when U.S. soldiers told him he was safe.
"Bergdahl's father looks like an Afghan with his beard." Bob Bergdahl's Presbyterian minister says it was the father's way of trying to understand his son's captors and show solidarity with his son while he was a captive.
"Obama made the swap for political gain." The evidence is that Obama threw political caution to the wind. Foreign Policy, an online magazine that has a decidedly anti-Obama tilt, published an opinion piece in which the author said, "The deal was done to retrieve one of America's own in the last throes of a war winding down and end the agony of this man and his family."
"Soldiers lost their lives searching for Bergdahl." While it's unquestionable that soldiers died during the time period of the searches, The New York Times investigated and found no clear evidence to support the charge that lives were lost directly, or indirectly, during searches for Bergdahl.
"Republicans were against this swap from the start." Many senators and representatives who now oppose the swap are on record as supporting and lobbying Obama for Bergdahl's return. And they knew then the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture.
"Obama broke the law by not informing Congress." There are genuine differences here among good people. Obama acknowledges he broached the law, but cites the powers granted the president under Section II of the Constitution. A December video of Bergdahl, the latest they had, showed him in a state of physical decline.
Instead of the knee-jerk opposition to the president's decision, shouldn't we withhold judgment until we can hear from Bowe Bergdahl? And what will it take for us to have a debate about the future of those detained Guantanamo Bay? The war in Afghanistan is coming to an end -- and these conversations need to start soon.