Ten months ago, President Barack Obama hailed the safe return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to the United States during a rare weekend appearance in the Rose Garden.
“Sgt. Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays and the simple moments with family and friends,” Obama said, standing alongside Bergdahl’s parents. Later, he detailed how he’d swapped five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl’s return from five years of captivity in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl, charged by the military Wednesday with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, now faces the prospect of never spending another birthday or holiday outside of prison if the maximum penalty of life in prison is applied.
While officials say there’s little appetite for a lengthy sentence, the charges create a dilemma for the White House, which loudly defended the decision to recover Bergdahl amid backlash from Republicans and some families who served with the Army sergeant in Afghanistan.
The White House declined to weigh in Wednesday on the announcement of charges. One official suggested it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment “on what’s obviously an ongoing investigation by the military.”
But it’s unlikely Obama or his aides will admit any regret at the decision to bring home a man they say still deserved the backing – and the rescue – provided by the U.S. government.
U.S. officials said at the time of the recovery that Obama’s national security team was unanimous in its support of the prisoner exchange that ultimately returned Bergdahl to the United States, and that concerns about his physical health prompted them to circumvent a requirement to notify Congress about pending prisoner releases.
Obama himself cited a “sacred rule” in attempting to rescue American servicemen and women, no matter the circumstances surrounding their capture.
“We still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” he said during a June foreign swing in Europe.
Obama made those comments as members of Bergdahl’s unit were coming forward to describe, in their telling, how Bergdahl purposely abandoned his post before being taken captive in remote Afghanistan. Some suggested the U.S. effort to rescue him was misguided.
The allegations that Bergdahl had abandoned his post were well known before his rescue became public, though they hadn’t yet been subject to the type of Army investigation that followed his return.
Defending Obama’s decision to rescue Bergdahl shortly after his return, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said during an interview that Bergdahl had served in the military “with honor and distinction.”
Later, she told CNN she was referring to “the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war.”
In a letter to military officials earlier this month, Bergdahl’s lawyer wrote that had Obama not executed his prisoner swap plan, Bergdahl would have been killed by his Taliban captors.
“Sgt. Bergdahl will be eternally grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” the lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, wrote. “Had President Obama not exerted himself, Sgt. Bergdahl would likely have been murdered. Anyone who has followed the news over the last few months knows that this is no exaggeration.”
Those arguments, however, haven’t quieted the opposition to Bergdahl’s release. Republicans have seized on the prisoner exchange – rather than Bergdahl’s own potential offenses – as an example of dangerous decision-making rooted in what they claim is Obama’s naïve worldview.
“I have nothing but disgust for this deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN on Wednesday. “If Bergdahl had been a Medal of Honor winner, it would not have mattered. I’m not worried about the service of Sgt. Bergdahl. Letting these five terrorist leaders go undermined the war effort and put our nation at risk.”
Fueling those arguments is a recent assessment from the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which suggested that one of the prisoners had tried to contact the Taliban from his captivity in Qatar.
Even after that report surfaced, the White House expressed no regret at the decision to exchange Bergdahl. As proceedings continue that could result in a court martial, Obama’s initial stance – that rescuing an American soldier was worth the cost, no matter what – appears unlikely to change.
“I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back,” Obama said in June.