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Bergdahl's release: Motives, mistakes and excuses

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
These are photos obtained by WikiLeaks that match the names of the detainees released by the Department of Defense. Their release was in exchange for the release of <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/bowe-bergdahl-fast-facts/index.html' target='_blank'>Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl</a> who was being held by the Taliban. The Department of Defense would neither confirm nor deny their accuracy.<strong> Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa </strong>was an early member of the Taliban in 1994 and was interior minister during the Taliban's rule. He was arrested in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities. These are photos obtained by WikiLeaks that match the names of the detainees released by the Department of Defense. Their release was in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who was being held by the Taliban. The Department of Defense would neither confirm nor deny their accuracy. Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa was an early member of the Taliban in 1994 and was interior minister during the Taliban's rule. He was arrested in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities.
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Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
Guantanamo detainees swapped for Bergdahl
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Many of the questions surrounding Bergdahl swap are answerable
  • But she says it's hard to understand why there was a Rose Garden announcement
  • Should Susan Rice have said he served with "honor and distinction"?
  • Borger: Obama's decision to pull out of Afghanistan may have dictated swap

(CNN) -- In all of the fallout surrounding the prisoner exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, let's get these points out of the way: the case for leaving no soldier behind is a sound and important one — a way to keep faith with our troops. There is historical precedent for the exchange of prisoners. President Obama likely has the legal authority he needs, as commander in chief, to order a swap.

Did the president notify Congress — as in the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — in a timely manner beforehand? No. Had this been a matter of some internal controversy for years precisely because of the nature of any trade? Yes. Was the White House aware of the questionable circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance? Yes.

Should National Security Adviser Susan Rice have thought twice before describing him as someone who "served with honor and distinction." Yes, because the jury is most definitely out on that one. Should the President have held a triumphal newser in the Rose Garden to announce the release and swap? Um, no. Absolutely no.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

"The point is, you have to get him home as a way to keep faith with our troops," says a former senior national security official. "Everybody gets that. Then you deal with him and the circumstances of his departure." As for the ceremony in the President's backyard? "That was surreal," he says. "Truly."

Opinion: Five tough ethics issues in Bergdahl swap

In a way, it's all surreal and hard to unspool. So let's start at the policy end of all of this. This is a president whose legacy is up for grabs. One important piece: ending two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. "This (The Bergdahl swap) is tying up loose ends," says another former senior national security source. "The administration made the decision not to leave any people there, so that was that."

The Republicans, of course, argue that a virtually 100% withdrawal is wrong. That the President should have instead planned for a gradual withdrawal, depending on circumstances on the ground. Then he might not have felt such pressure to clear the decks and cut this deal. Or do a victory lap in the Rose Garden. It is, they charge, pure politics.

Then Obama played right into their hands.

Trouble is, Republicans are playing at it, too. They're tweeting their joy about Bergdahl's release one minute, then un-tweeting it the next. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham charged that this is the President's backdoor way of emptying out Guantanamo without having to close it. Please.

Who are the Gitmo detainees?

Bergdahl's captivity: Fact vs. fiction
Bergdahl's squad leader: He deserted us

This is a serious matter. Years of internal deliberations have gone into this, according to my sources. That's why the White House needs to make it clear why the swap was a matter so urgent that there wasn't enough time to notify the appropriate people, much less consult with them.

Was Bergdahl swap legal? Depends on who you ask

Understandably, there were concerns about his safety. And even given all the delicacies of revealing health issues, it's still an important matter to explain. Because right now, it looks like the lack of consultation is about one thing: the knowledge that there would be pushback. And, as one source puts it, "fighting over process is always easier than fighting over substance." In other words, it's easier to apologize than ask for permission.

Now the administration has fights on both of those fronts. At least they're consistent: micromanaging foreign policy from the west wing has always been a hallmark. Not that it wins you any friends — or political support. Guess it's too late for that now.

If this were Netflix, a replica of SEAL Team Six could have swooped in to the rescue, just like they did in 2011. Ironically, my sources say, the bin Laden raid itself complicated events: If Bergdahl was in Pakistan, would that inflame an already inflamed relationship due to the bin Laden raid? Was the intel good enough? Was the considerable risk worth it?

Taliban video shows Bowe Bergdahl's release in Afghanistan

The backdrop to all of this is that the same questions that are now being raised publicly had been raised internally for years — about what a "fair" trade would include. As CNN's Elise Labott has reported, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was skeptical of early plans to trade five Gitmo prisoners for Bergdahl. And as my national security source adds, "people opposed the deal because it wasn't great." But, he adds, "they were also looking at a deal that would provoke negotiations with the Taliban."

Hillary Clinton wanted tougher deal for Bergdahl

That is not the case now. The conflict is winding down. We're leaving Afghanistan. No one left behind. Sgt. Bergdahl gets to go home. What lingers, sadly, is the unsettling reality that five really, really bad guys have a ticket home, too.

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