Bowe Bergdahl release: Republicans seek to politicise return of America's last PoW


US Editor

President Barack Obama has vigorously defended the secret prisoner swap done last weekend with the Taliban that led to the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl amid new questions about the circumstances of his capture in Afghanistan five years ago and mounting criticism of the deal in Congress.

Last Saturday a joyous-looking Mr Obama stepped onto the White House lawn alongside the parents of the soldier to announce the return of the American. But what might have been chalked up as a stars-and-stripes coup for the president has since curdled into a nasty political controversy that seems set only to grow.

Trickiest of all are records showing that on 30 June 2009, Sgt Bergdahl, who had publicly voiced criticism of the US Army’s mission in Afghanistan, simply upped and left his unit at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, taking no weapons with him only to be snatched by Taliban militants. Critics have this week termed him a "traitor" and a "deserter" and argued that the military mission to find him at the time may have cost the lives of six other soldiers.

“Six of my best friends are now dead in direct relation to this man, who is now being acclaimed a national hero by the president of the United States, and he is not,” one former unit comrade, Joseph Cox, told CNN. “He is a traitor. He deserted his unit in a combat zone.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress, though wary of being seen as unpatriotic in querying the return of a man who had been America’s last known prisoner of war, are seeking hearings on the Hill. They question the price that was paid – the release by the US of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay - and why Mr Obama apparently overrode a law requiring that Congress be given 30 days’ notice of any Guantanamo releases.

Mr Obama attempted to address the full tangle of these issues at a news conference yesterday in Poland, at the outset of a three-day visit to Europe. But he insisted the swap was justified. “Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop,” he asserted.

The sudden swirl around the deal and the soldier’s real record threatens to dampen not just Mr Obama’s already strained political spirits but also celebrations that have been long-planned by his home-town of Hailey, Idaho, where lampposts and trees had been adorned with yellow ribbons as reminders of Sgt Bergdahl’s absence. For its 8,000 residents, the young man was meant to return as an American hero, not at all as a man accused of deserting.

For now, Sgt Bergdahl – he was promoted to the rank while in captivity – is under medical and psychological surveillance at a US military hospital in Germany. From there he will be transferred first to another base in San Antonio, Texas. It is unclear therefore when his return to Hailey will happen.

Bowe Bergdahl's mother and father, Jani and Bob, speak to the media during a press conference in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday (AP) Bowe Bergdahl's mother and father, Jani and Bob, speak to the media during a press conference in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday (AP)
That he may in time be investigated for his actions in leaving his unit was hinted at by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, in a statement posted yesterday on his Facebook page. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.” But for now, he added, the priority was caring for him.

The point was also stressed by Mr Obama. “Our main priority is making sure the transition that he’s undergoing after five years in captivity is successful,” the president said.

Under the deal sanctioned by Mr Obama, Sgt Bergdahl was whisked away from Taliban hands in a US military hospital on Saturday while the five Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo were freed and sent to Qatar. The Qatari government had acted throughout as the negotiating intermediary between the White House and the Taliban. Qatar meanwhile gave the US its guarantee that the five men would be required to remain in the country for a year.

Today, however, reports that the men had been allowed to settle in a residential compound in Doha and would be free to move around within the country were likely only to deepen anxiety about the deal on Capitol Hill. Republicans demanding hearings into the swap include Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“The United States is less safe because of these actions,” Senator Graham, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter demanding a congressional inquiry. “I fear President Obama’s decision will inevitably lead to more Americans being kidnapped and held hostage throughout the world.”

For his part, Mr Obama conceded that in the end the five freed men could eventually attempt to harm the United States. “We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Mr Obama said. But he added: “I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security and we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if in fact they are engaging in activities that threaten our defences.”

He meanwhile insisted that while the specifics of the deal had not been discussed with Congress 30 days in advance, the possibility of a swap involving Sgt Bergdahl had been. In the end, he said, time was of the essence.

"We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sgt Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt Bergdahl's health,” Mr Obama said. “We seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”

Officials in the White House had long been concerned that the chances of getting the young man back would become greatly diminished after the end of this year when the vast majority of US soldiers are due to leave Afghanistan.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all