Bergdahl swap a flashpoint of rival charges

June 7, 2014 - 1:04 AM
Captured Soldier Bergdahls Journey

FILE - In this Saturday, May 31, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Bob Bergdahl as Jani Bergdahl stands at left, during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The soldier went missing from his outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009 and was released from Taliban captivity on May 31, 2014 in exchange for five enemy combatants held in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats who initially praised the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after his five years in captivity quickly scrubbed their welcoming tweets amid questions about whether the Army soldier was a deserter and an outcry over the exchange of five Taliban officials for his freedom.

On the defensive, Democrats hammered GOP lawmakers with their own words from just a few weeks ago pleading with the Obama administration to do all it could to return Bergdahl home to his family.

The swap stands as a political flashpoint on Capitol Hill that shows no sign of abating, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certain to face tough questions Wednesday at a high-profile House Armed Services Committee hearing. Closed-door sessions pitting lawmakers against Obama administration officials also are planned next week.

The Bergdahl case offers none of the clarity of a celebratory homecoming for a freed military captive that rallies Americans of all political persuasions. In its place are the murky circumstances of Bergdahl's June 2009 departure from his outpost and President Barack Obama's move to send five enemy combatants to Qatar after they spent more than a decade in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison.

The Washington backdrop is highly partisan, with an ongoing investigation into the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, midterm elections in less than five months and Republicans certain that a roughed-up Obama is critical to their political success.

Caution is clearly the watchword for some politicians in advance of primaries and elections.

Rep. Jim Renacci of Ohio and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, both Republicans, deleted tweets that had expressed joy over Bergdahl's release, as did Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst. Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts did the same, according to the website Politwoops of the Sunlight Foundation, which keeps track of deleted tweets.

"People in Idaho are glad that he's been released and home. The other factors surrounding this matter will come out as time goes on, and we'll leave it at that," said Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch.

Republicans have pounded the administration for exchanging Bergdahl for the five Taliban commanders, warning that they will return to the fight against the United States, something an intelligence official acknowledged is likely to lawmakers this week.

In an interview Friday with "NBC Nightly News," Obama acknowledged that some Guantanamo detainees who have been released in the past have returned to the fight. And he cautioned that as the war in Afghanistan winds down more detainees may have to be let go.

"It's also important for us to recognize that the transition process of ending a war is going to involve, on occasion, releasing folks who we may not trust but we can't convict," Obama said. "And I've been very clear about the fact the over time, we're going to have to whittle away at the number of prisoners who were in Guantanamo as part of this transition out of the war in Afghanistan."

Democrats quickly accused the GOP of doing an about-face on their pleas for Bergdahl's release and made clear the military's support for the swap will be a major element of their pushback.

"You put on the uniform of this country, we're going to do everything to get you," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters this week. "Read the Republican statements. Read the resolutions they introduced about trying to get Bergdahl back. ... What happened to that? I think even (Sen. John) McCain was on television saying that he was open to the possibility of a swap a couple of months ago."

In a February interview with CNN, McCain said he would support a swap of the five Taliban commanders for Bergdahl contingent on the details. Within hours of word of the exchange this past weekend, McCain criticized the deal as a mistake that would put American lives in danger.

McCain's office insisted that there was no contradiction and faulted the White House, saying that as it struggled to defend the deal, it was discrediting its critics.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., highlighted several other instances of Republicans pressing for Bergdahl's release, and complained that they were now trying to score political points.

In April, Pennsylvania's two senators — Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey — joined with Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in introducing a resolution saying "the United States should leave no member of the Armed Forces unaccounted for during the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan."

The measure also "supports the United States Soldier's Creed and the Warrior Ethos, which state that 'I will never leave a fallen comrade.'"

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also has backed the resolution.

Last month, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., added a provision to the Armed Services Committee's defense policy bill pressuring Pakistan to fully cooperate in the search for Bergdahl.

Ayotte has been a strong supporter of keeping Guantanamo open and was highly critical of the exchange involving the Taliban officials. Republicans critical of the swap see their earlier efforts pressing for Bergdahl's release as mutually exclusive from what they consider Obama's bad deal.